Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tides of Trust

Chapter 1
Gabe pulled the dark green canvas duffel out of the trunk of his SUV. I'll have to talk mom into repairing the hole near the zipper. The last three repairs he did himself ripped out leaving the bag in worse shape than before he tried to repair it. Next came out the camp stove and tent.  He set them on the hard ground, stooping to tie the tent onto the bottom of the metal back pack frame. It is nearly a mile to the camp site; the boys each have their own gear and won't be much help carrying anything. With the tent secured, he turned his attention to checking the electric cooler. Still plugged in, good. I'll have to come back for it, I can't get everything at once. He shut and locked the vehicle then called cheerfully, “Everyone get their packs on!”
Five twelve year old boys were running around in different directions playing tag. The other leader of their Scout troop, Rob, ran around too. He acts more like a boy than his son does. “Let's go boys, a whole week of fun and adventure awaits us.” Gabe loved Scout camp but worried this week may add a few gray hairs to the ones already taken up residence in his dark brown hair. A week on the water with five 12 year old boys and another leader who might as well be 12 himself is enough to drive any man crazy. But he loved his son, Sean, and would do anything for him. Slapping on a smile, he took off at a run. “I bet you I'll beat you all to the camp site,” he teased the boys. He knew it was a lost cause. He carried twice as much weight in his pack and a stove in his arms, but he gave them a run for their money. Sure enough all five boys beat him, but Rob came along at a leisurely pace behind. He was not the least bit phased at being the rotten egg. Boys were assigned to set up tents in a small clearing. It was near the camp center, but far enough away they would have some privacy. Most meals they would eat with the other troops, but arriving a day early, they would cook for themselves tonight. There were also a few meals throughout the week Gabe had planned to eat off by themselves. Two boys took on the task to set up the stove. Gabe still needed to return to the car for remaining supplies. He left one last laughing command, “Rob, make sure no one
falls in the river, ok?” As long as he keeps them busy, that shouldn't be a challenge. Twenty minutes later he returned with the cooler of food and the back pack frame full of empty plastic jugs ready to fill with water at the camp's water spout. First thing, Gabe counted heads, but noticed a boy missing. Scanning the trees and brush, he asked Rob, “where's Jake gone to?” The color drained from Rob's face as he spun around quickly looking for Jacob. “There he is,” Quentin called, pointing toward the river. Jacob stood balanced on a large rock throwing small stones into the rushing current, attempting to launch them as far as possible. “Jacob, get over here.” Gabe yelled, a little too frustrated. Realizing the tone of his voice, he headed toward the water to meet him half way, ready to apologize and talk to him away from the other boys. Jacob walked slowly toward him, head down, afraid of the consequences. “Jake, I'm sorry I yelled at you. I worry about your safety,” Gabe softened his voice to show his concern. “I'm sorry, Mr. Josephs, I just wanted to see if I could throw the stones across the water.” Jake's remorse was real. He added his disappointment, “I never did make it onto the other side.” Gabe smiled at him and placed his hand on the boy's shoulder. “Jake, you're 12 years old, and I need you to be the responsible guy I know. I want to be able to trust you to do things safely this week and always let us know where you are.” Gabe's tone reassured Jake everything was good now and he wasn't angry.
Leaving Jacob, Gabe walked over to Rob and bumped him on the arm. “Man, I need you to step up for me this week and keep the boys in line. I'm not calling their parents to tell them we lost one. That's not a position I want to be in. Understand?” His voice was even and strong enough to get the point across, but without creating distance between them. “Of course,” Rob responded and then pointed out they did get the tents up and they were ready to cook dinner. A wide smile broke through Gabe's short dark beard and he clapped his hands together. “Well then, let's get cooking!” He called all the boys over and started handing out cooking and preparation assignments.
The next two days went well. The boys followed directions and made it to most of their merit badge workshops on time. Afternoons were spent rafting down the Kern River in central California. Blue skies and puffy clouds greeted them as they pulled the inflated raft from the water near the end of the day. There were several troops at camp this week, and each troop traveled separately through the rapids. A large group already waited on the shore, so Gabe had his boys pull the raft up to the parking lot where they would meet the bus. “Careful with it boys. Don't let it drag. If it gets damaged it's coming out of your allowance,” he warned. Over their heads, the five boys and two men, lifted and carried the inflatable over the gravel lot to a waiting truck. They stopped under the shade of a few large trees off to the side of the
bus parking. A large red camp truck already stood waiting, a large trailer attached to carry the equipment back to camp.  Twenty minutes later, two more troops had arrived and the guides loaded the brightly colored rafts onto the waiting trailer. A short time later an old former school bus rumbled into the lot, narrowly missing a few scouts running through its path without paying attention. Rob called the boys together, “Get your stuff together, unless you want to leave it here for the squirrels and bears to take home with them.”  It made Gabe very happy that after the first mishap Rob was more focused as an adult leader. Even so, Rob was still always ready and willing to drop everything and go play games with the boys. Gabe loved playing around and having fun, but responsibility comes first. An emergency can ruin a good time faster than anything. The bus door opened with a gust of air and the noisy boys all loaded their packs beneath the bus in the luggage compartments. Gabe teased them as they boarded, “I don't think we'll have enough room. Who volunteers to ride under the bus in the cargo hold? Sean, I think you're skinny enough we can squeeze you in there.” The boys continued teasing who should go underneath and why, when a short, blond haired boy, with the bluest eyes Gabe had ever seen, stepped onto the bus. He scanned the front half of the rows looking for an unoccupied seat. Walking slowly, unsure, he passed most of what seemed to be his troop. The boy glanced at Sean, Gabe's son, sitting alone in the seat in front of the other boys in their troop. Sean looked back at the boy and smiled.
“I love your creeper shirt,” Sean blurted out at him. The boy smiled, relaxed and asked if they could share a seat. “My name is Chris,” he introduced himself. Sean shared his name and the names of the other boys surrounding him. Feeling more comfortable, Chris launched into a complete description of his Minecraft mods and the programming class he attended each week. The boys shared ideas and the conversation moved onto other games they were interested in. All six boys were laughing and jumping in to share their opinions. They all unloaded at the camp and Chris walked off to join his troop. By then they had figured out he and Sean were in one of the same merit badge workshops and could see each other the next day. Gabe was glad his son would have a new friend from camp. Sometimes, Sean was shy. He chose his friends carefully and didn't always add new friends easily. Once he considered someone a friend they were friends for life, at least “for life” as a 12 year old can. The remainder of the week flew by. Whenever the troops did anything together Sean and Chris were inseparable. Gabe really liked Chris and thought he was a good kid. He was funny too, once he opened up. His dry humor wasn't always appreciated in the passing gas world of young men, but Gabe thought he was a riot. Chris told hilarious stories of his mom with only one mention of his dad who lived a few states away in Colorado. Gabe, ready for the end of the week, longed to sleep in a real bed and take a real shower. He allowed Sean to give Chris their phone number and email address so they could keep in touch. Chris explained, “I'm not allowed to give out my phone number unless I ask my mom first.” So, it was left to Chris to contact Sean to get together once
they left the camp. Gabe would start shooting a new series next week and it would be good if Sean and Chris spent some time together over the summer. Gabe worried that Sean spent too much time in a world of mostly adults. Chris was a good kid that Gabe would happily invite over whenever he wanted.
Chapter 2
Anna hugged her son, just for a short moment. Partly, so he wouldn't be embarrassed and partly because he smelled awful. She opened the hatch back and helped Chris load his supplies in the car. He was one big ball of dirt and stink. “This gear isn't coming in the house, OK? It all goes straight to the garage and the clothes straight into the washer,” Anna informed him. “Too bad I can't fit you in the washer too,” she teased.  During the ride home, Chris filled her in on the merit badges he had completed and a few of the more exciting elements of rafting down river. “I only fell out of the raft twice. Once we went down by a rock and the raft swerved and surprised me and I fell out backwards. On the last day, we were almost done and I was really hot so I fell out on purpose,” Chris added with a giggle.  “I don't believe you really fell in. You would be cleaner if you had gotten at all wet this week,” Anna teased. “It's probably like rain
on a car, you just got wet enough to turn all the dirt into mud. Maybe we'll just hose you off in the front yard the way we wash our car.” “No way I'm taking a shower in the front yard. You're crazy,” Chris protested. Anna continued asking questions as they drove getting as many details as possible while they were still fresh in his mind. So used to being in on all his activities, she missed it when he left her. Although, she knew it was a good thing for a growing young man to leave his mom occasionally. Arriving home,  Anna told him, “Sort your clothes into the colors they used to be before they all turned dirty brown. Also, to check all the pockets and turn everything right side out. I am not responsible for anything that gets washed in your pockets and I am not responsible for any clothes that do not get clean because they are wrong side out; especially dirty, nasty, stinky, 12 year old boy socks.” This last part was punctuated by small tickles to his ribs and one last squirm causing tickle to his stomach.  Chris finally escaped his mom's grasp and ran quickly into the garage hoping to gain a better position in case she decided to try again. The washer filled and began running, Chris went inside to get in the shower. He loved camping and secretly hadn't even worn most of the clothes he had just dumped in the washer, but a hot running shower would feel good. He left his pile of clothes on the floor and stepped in to the relaxing steam.
Two days later, Anna's normal laundry day, she filled the
washer with the last of the clothes in the bottom of the hamper. A whiff of body odor hit her and she realized it came from the last of Chris' camp clothes he had taken off when he got in the shower. They hadn't made it in the load with everything else and the smell fermented in the two days since. Adding a little extra detergent, she started the machine and headed into the kitchen to make dinner. “I threw the clothes you wore home on Saturday in the washer, whew did they smell awful.” Anna teased him while he chopped carrots to add to the salad. Suddenly his eyes got big and he turned quickly and asked if she had pulled any papers out of his pocket? “Of course not, you know I don't check pockets and I touch the clothes as little as possible.” Anna was a little paranoid about germs and dirty clothes. Not really a 'disinfect the whole house, hand sanitizer everything' kind of OCD, just a general desire to avoid anything sweaty or stinky in the hamper. Chris jumped off his stool and ran to the washer. Lifting the lid stopped the agitation, and he searched for the faded blue jeans he had worn two days ago. A small white lined piece of paper peeked from the pocket. Chris grabbed it, shut the lid, and returned to the kitchen. He held the wet, folded paper between his thumb and forefinger as if it might crumble if he handled it too roughly. He handed it to his mom and explained how he had met Sean at camp and how Gabe had given him their contact information so the boys could get together again over the summer if they wanted. Anna carefully unfolded the lined sheet and squinted to make out the names and numbers slightly smeared across the page.
The black ink had run but wasn't really damaged by the swim it took in the washer. Gabe and Sean Josephs 310-555-2001
“You should call him and ask if he wants to come over on Thursday. I don't have to work and it would be a perfect chance for me to get to know him, since, his dad has already met you.” Chris agreed, and walked to the other room to get the phone to make the call. Anna could hear the phone ringing through Chris’ ear and then a woman answered, “Hello.” “Uh, hi, this is Christopher Wylde. Sean and I met at camp last week and I wanted to know if maybe he could, um, come to my house on Thursday to hang out or something.” Chris spoke to her nervously, but she answered enthusiastically. Sean had already filled her in about Chris and the week river rafting. She called to Sean to ask him if he would like to go and he yelled “Yes!” followed by a loud thump.  The woman explained, while laughing, Sean had landed on the hardwood after jumping off the couch in excitement. She asked to speak to Anna to arrange the details and Chris passed the phone off to his mom. Rose would drop him off in the morning and Anna would bring him home in the afternoon before she headed to a tutoring appointment at 5pm. That way they could both avoid the heaviest traffic along the 405 past the airport. Both boys were happy with the arrangement and with it all settled the women said good bye. “You've got to make sure your room is clean. I'll come up with something good for lunch and for you boys to snack on while
you play.” Anna felt glad Chris had made a new friend, but as mom's always do, reserved judgment until she met the kid and made sure he was a good influence for her son.
Thursday morning the doorbell rang and Anna met a lovely blonde woman and a cute 12 year old boy. Light brown curls and green eyes guaranteed girls would be falling over him once he was older. She invited them in and Sean and Chris immediately went into the living room and started hooking up PC's and gaming consoles, sharing wifi encryption codes, and deciding what to do first. Rose was very kind and she and Anna chatted for a few minutes while the boys settled in. Rose looked to be about 10 years older than Anna but it was clear she loved Sean. She shared that he had an allergy to strawberries, but nothing else, and should be fine for a full day of running around and playing video games. After a few minutes more, she left and Anna went back to sewing a skirt which needed taking in and a new zipper added. The day went well and way too soon it was time to go take Sean home. Chris would come with the two of them and then have to wait in the car while Anna tutored a ninth grade girl in Algebra for an hour. She just wouldn't have time to drop him off before she had to be there, so, there wasn't an alternative. The drive to Santa Monica took about 45 minutes on the freeway and another few minutes winding along streets toward the beach. When the GPS instructed Anna to turn right into a very wealthy neighborhood she stared around her amazed.
She began to wonder what kind of family Sean came from to live in the multimillion dollar homes with such a brilliant view of the hills and city. The address on the tan stucco house stood out well enough for her to see it easily, but Anna sat there for a moment taking it all in. It wasn't an overly large home, but even relatively small homes in this area cost well over 2 million. She finally swallowed hard and pulled herself from the car. By the time she exited the car and closed the door, the boys had already jumped out and were in the house. They left the front door gaping open. She stepped inside the dark, solid wood door the boys had left open and Rose greeted her immediately and invited her in further. “Sean is so excited to show Chris his room, they both ran off in that direction.” Rose shared with Anna. Anna glanced around at the Spanish style home. A large archway separated the entry from the living space and a large, dark wood beam crossed the ceiling where it led into the kitchen. The floor consisted of terracotta Mexican tile, complete with the foot prints of small animals who had ventured across the tiles before they hardened. Heavy wooden furniture filled the two rooms and Anna fell in love with the house immediately. If she had chosen it all herself she couldn't have liked it more. However, the house seemed very masculine, without those small frufru decorating touches women usually add. Anna complemented Rose on the house and Rose thanked her, saying how she wished Gabe would let her bring in a few more feminine touches, but it was his house, so she didn't really have much say in the matter.
Anna frowned at this comment, imaging a domineering man who wouldn't even allow his wife to decorate her own home. Rose hadn't even claimed the house as her own. Anna shuddered a little thinking about how sad it was for Rose to be in such a relationship. She really hoped that type of attitude wasn't passed onto Sean, especially for Chris' sake. She had escaped that type of attitude from Chris' dad; she certainly would not allow anyone else influence her son in the same way. Rose called the boys back to the front room and Anna and Chris headed toward the door. Sean pleaded for Chris to come over on Sunday and Rose calmly answered they would need to check with his dad before she made plans for a day when he would be home. Anna smiled slightly and told Rose to call her if it turned out alright for them to come. Anna and Chris had church services until 1pm but could come over for the afternoon. Rose agreed and turned to walk back into the house. Once she assured herself the door closed and Rose couldn't see her, Anna shut her eyes and leaned her head on the steering wheel. A small tear escaped as she thought of the type of man Gabe Josephs must be to not even allow his wife to make those kinds of decisions without his approval. She traveled half way to her appointment before she remembered 'Gabe Josephs' was the name of a popular actor. He had a hit show about ten years earlier and did guest appearances on popular tv shows from time to time. She recalled a commercial for a new show he starred in. She wondered if it could be the same man. Anna grew up in Southern California and attended school with a list of moderately famous child stars. A few went on to prolific careers and others fizzled. Few escaped child stardom
completely and settled down to normal happy lives.  Fame and fortune often brought out the worst in people, both the performer and those around them. She had little patience for those who thought so highly of themselves just because everyone else seemed to. If Sean's father and the actor really were one in the same, it gave her one more reason not to like or trust him. She would have to be very careful of the time Chris spent at their house, with Mr. Gabriel Josephs.
Chapter 3
Friday evening Gabe arrived home early from shooting. He collected their pizza order on his way. Half pepperoni and mushroom, Sean's favorite, and half the works minus the fungus, as Gabe called them. What was mom thinking introducing Sean to such a disgusting food? They sat on the brown leather couch with the pizza balanced on the wooden coffee table in front of them and soda's on each side of the box. They made it a normal Friday night tradition, especially when Gabe was gone so much of the week at work. The hours of working on a TV show do not usually lend themselves well to full time parenting. Early mornings and late nights can be standard.  Gabe left before Sean awoke and usually got home in time for dinner, but sometimes had to leave again for events or promotions. With so many activities each evening, the weekends were their time to hang out and catch up. Sean shared all his adventures
throughout the week, including his visit to Chris' house and his mom who made the best zucchini bread cookies he had ever tasted. Gabe teased him, “Exactly how many zucchini bread cookies have you ever eaten before?” but Sean laughed back that he had tasted plenty of zucchini bread and these cookies were better than anything! Gabe felt happy his son was able to get together with his new friend, as well as friends he had in the neighborhood other afternoons. He worried about Sean while he worked and very much appreciated that Rose cared for him so well. She never missed a beat and loved him as much as moms do. He didn't know what he would do without her. They were deciding on a movie when Sean blurted out he wanted Chris and his mom to come over on Sunday and hang out. “They have church in the morning, but can come over in the afternoon. If it's ok with you?” Sean questioned his father with light green eyes begging puppy dog style. “I really like him and I want you to meet his mom. She's really cool and even took us to the park and told us we weren't allowed to come home until we were good and worn out, preferably dirty like boys should be. She's really funny.” Gabe thought about it for a minute and couldn't think of any plans they had on Sunday. “Why don't we do a barbeque,” he offered. “They can come and swim and we'll make dinner before they have to go home in the evening. Sound alright?” He took Sean's enthusiastic bounce and huge smile as a “Yes” and started planning in his head what food they should serve and anything they would need to plan before then. “Why don't you go call Chris right now before we start another movie?”
Sean grabbed the phone; Chris' number appeared in the contacts, and dialed anxious to get the plans approved. Anna sat at her desk putting the finishing touches on a pair of light gray dress pants. She stopped and stretched her arms over her head. Her back popped like pop corn as she pushed her shoulders back after several hours working on this latest sewing order. The cell phone rang and Chris brought it to her. She often received business calls and he had never been allowed to answer it. She briefly considered he was now old enough to answer even a business call politely and properly and she should tell him it was ok, but for now she just pushed the green button and said hello. The caller, Sean Josephs, energetically extended an invitation for them to come over on Sunday, “Could you come over and swim on Sunday? My dad said we could barbeque steaks and have dinner if you guys come over. Please say yes.” She relayed this information to Chris who waited patiently for her to answer. “I think that should be fine,” she said finally and then Chris shouted excitedly; Sean responded similarly in her ear through the phone. He told her to wait for a second so she could talk to his dad. Anna heard a shuffling as Sean handed the phone to his dad. Gabe Josephs’ deep voice answered “Hello.” She couldn't be certain it was him, but he sounded like he might be the actor. She would just have to wait until Sunday to know for sure. He outlined a plan of swimming and grilling, steaks, salad and dip and chips for dinner. “Make sure to bring your suits and your appetites and leave the rest to me,” Gabe insisted. Anna told him, “We can come about 3:30 pm and dinner sounds great. I have an early day on Monday so we can't stay too
With the plans solidified, Gabe said goodbye, but Anna hung up without saying anything. He dismissed it thinking maybe she just didn't really have a habit of saying goodbye. He had met a few people like that in the business, people who felt they didn't have time for all the pleasantries. He had always considered it rude behavior. Based on Chris' description of her, he wouldn't have expected it. Oh well, I guess a 12 year old doesn't have the best perspectives on their mothers.  Anna heard him say good bye. About to respond, she thought of Rose and his attitude. She tried to say good bye but choked instead and the phone slipped from her hand. She grabbed for it to try again but as her fingers landed on the phone she brushed the red button ending the call. Anna debated for a minute calling him back and apologizing for the rude hang up, but thought it would just draw more attention to it. He probably didn't care at all what she said anyway. Then, Anna noticed the time. She should have made dinner an hour ago, Chris was probably starving by now.
Sunday brought a lazy morning. Gabe and Sean sometimes attended services in the morning, and breakfast was a large event of bacon, pancakes, hash browns, fruit, and eggs. So full they could barely walk, the two of them dressed in church clothes and headed out the door.  Gabe did not claim to be particularly religious but Sean enjoyed his Bible study classes and spending the time with his
friends. Gabe decided it was a better place for his son to be than sitting at home playing video games and so it slowly became a habit. When they arrived home, Gabe checked the cleanliness of Sean's room, then, sat around, feeling uncharacteristically impatient. The steaks marinated, the macaroni salad prepared, and bean dip was ready to go. He reached for the remote and tried to relax watching the Dodgers losing to the Giants while Sean ran around outside with the dogs. After meetings at church, Anna and Chris stayed to talk with friends, but Chris was distracted wanting it to be time to leave already. He pushed on her backside, moving her toward the car. He was normally more reserved in front of crowds of people and Anna wondered what had gotten into her son. They drove home to change out of their nice clothes and into something more comfortable. Chris already wore his swim trunks, but she made him bring dry clothes as well, just in case. She grabbed some tuna sandwiches, she prepared earlier in the morning, out of the fridge, a couple bottles of juice and an apple for her and an orange for Chris. The small lunch eaten, Chris practically yanked Anna's arm out of the socket in his enthusiasm to leave and get to Sean's house. They climbed back in the car and headed north toward Santa Monica. Anna remembered the way. It had only been a few days since she had been here, but the beauty of the view and the breath taking houses lining the streets weaving up the mountainside once again stunned her. Each house seemed to have its own style, but the eclectic neighborhood blended well together. Finally, they pulled into the Joseph’s driveway and turned off the car. Chris jumped out, but Anna sat there for a moment steeling
herself to face a man she did not respect and figured she probably wouldn't like. She called Chris back from the porch to the car to grab the sunscreen and his towel while she slowly extricated herself. The normally slow Chris beat her to the door. He waved his hand at her to hurry and when she reached the porch, he rang the bell. The doorbell toned and Gabe jumped up to answer it. “Sean, they're here,” Gabe called to his son lost somewhere on the hill below their house which made up their backyard. She heard Gabe call to Sean that they had arrived and she felt each heart beat as he turned the handle and opened the door. Each beat spelled impending dread until the door fully opened and she met Gabe Josephs face to face. She prepared herself to dislike him. As he opened the door he met two sets of the bluest eyes. Chris he knew well, but Gabe felt completely off guard by the lovely woman standing in front of him. She wasn't actually gorgeous by Hollywood standards. She wouldn't have been cast for anything based on her looks, but Gabe froze mesmerized by her girl next door appearance. She was not prepared, though, to meet the stare of his deep brown eyes. She recognized him, but hadn't seen him in anything in several years. The few gray hairs and deep laugh lines around his eyes only improved his appeal.  She couldn't speak and seemed to need every bit of energy just to keep breathing. They stood there silently until she squeaked out “Hello” and they were saved from saying more by Sean arriving to grab Chris and pull him inside. Sean energetically led him running through the house outside to the yard to finish whatever exciting adventure Sean had started before they arrived.
Gabe stepped aside, still not having said anything, but with a broad swing of his arm ushered her in. Gabe composed himself and said, “I'm glad you could make it today. Chris has told us so much about you when we were at camp, I feel like I know you a little already.” Ok, small talk, I can do this. Why do I feel so nervous? “Chris said he really had a great time with you guys at camp and really enjoyed Sean spending the day with us this week.” Anna smiled, just to be polite, then her hair fell slightly across her face. She silently chastised her hair for appearing so unpolished when she was trying to be stoic.  She brushed the strand behind her ear and willed it to stay put for once. They stood there silent for a moment while Gabe struggled to think of something to say. What is wrong with me, I usually can't shut myself up? Gabe thought to himself. “I planned to barbeque steaks for dinner. Have you already eaten lunch?” Anna nodded slightly, trying desperately to ignore the electricity shooting up her spine when he spoke to her. They stood there silent for a moment. In an effort to distract herself, she started looking around the house for something to talk about or some small interruption. “Is Rose here?” Anna asked carefully avoiding looking at him. She couldn't think if she looked in his dark brown eyes again.  “No, she had other plans today,” Gabe answered tentatively. Is she uncomfortable? I need to figure out something to get this conversation started. Her caution flag rose and she started to imagine various possible reasons for Rose's disappearance. Anna suddenly became very aware they were alone in the house and she had no idea how
far away the boys were. “I expected her to be here today. Did she know we were coming?” she asked trying to keep an even tone to her voice, but not achieving it. “She usually doesn't hang around here on weekends. Five days a week is enough, she likes to relax and travel.” Sensing she might be uncomfortable Gabe offered, “Do you want to go out and find the boys? They are probably running down the hill with the dogs,” As she stepped onto the patio she saw an old picture in a carved cherry wood frame hung on the exterior wall. In the photo, Sean stood dressed in his cub scout uniform holding a florescent green pine wood derby car in front of his dad's smiling face. Anna noticed a large cut across Gabe's jaw and a scrape like road rash on his cheek. But Gabe still smiled. “You look like you're having fun there, except for your injuries,” she winced a little looking at the scabs in the photograph, “Or is that just acting?” “That was a great day, but oh, so frustrating.” Gabe began sharing the story.” “I was working on his car in the garage. Sean ran around the corner chasing the two dogs, took it too quickly. He bumped my leg, the wooden block jumped and the saw chopped it in half.  Sean had drawn out an intricate design on the car and felt devastated because it was ruined. “An 8 year old boy doesn't consider whether or not his car will run well or if it is even possible to cut it that way. Many times derby cars are actually a competition between the dads and who can create the greatest, coolest, and fastest car. But I wanted to let Sean have his dream car.
“Once the first one died, what's a dad to do but run down to the nearest scout store and pick up another one?” Gabe shrugged. “He had to redraw what he wanted for the car, but it wasn't too much hassle once we got it.” “At the scout store the clerk recognized me and asked me for a picture and autograph. I signed a slip of paper, but really didn't have time to wait while the guy dug his phone out of the back room and found someone to take a photo of them. Sean became impatient, as 8 year old boys often are when they are bored and started pulling me one direction while the man tried to get me to stay.” Anna smiled at the picture he painted and laughed as he demonstrated the employee on one arm wanting a photo and Sean on the other pulling him out the door. He threw himself left and right, as though a human rope in a small tug of war. “Until both of them let go of me and I fell face first out the door onto the parking lot gravel.” “I have a scar. See?” He showed her a thick white line extending from just below his jaw to the center of his chin. Anna had the overwhelming urge to run her finger along it. Instead she grabbed hold of a patio chair. She breathed deeply to take her focus away from his face. “The new car, prepared and painted, was ready to go that evening. It came in second to last in every race it entered,” he added with a laugh. “Add to that the ugly scab crusted on my face which opened and bled every time I smiled. I had miserable pain the whole evening. My face felt on fire,” Gabe finished his story. “But you look so happy here. You're completely smiling,” Anna pointed out. “It's what you do for your child. Sean needed me, so I
smiled,” Gabe said softly. Once again her heart started racing. Comments like those made her believe he might be a nice guy, even if he wasn't so considerate to his wife. Sean was such a great kid, maybe Gabe was not as bad as she made him out to be. Anna looked at him quizzically and smiled, for real this time. Encouraged, he launched into a narrative of the following year when they decided to try rocket ship races instead of a derby. The plastic hanging attachment kept splitting the rockets and Gabe ended up giving away the last kit to one of the boys who couldn't afford to buy another one. The end result was Sean didn't have a rocket, so Gabe took an old derby kit, glued wings to the sides, fashioned a screw and paperclip to the top and showed up to race. He left off the wheels, although it might have been a funnier rocket ship with them on. He hadn't had time to cut it or shape it to cut down on wind resistance and feared it would be very slow. Luckily, the weight of the wooden block, plus the wings, and screw, plunged it down the wire at light speed and Sean won every race that year. He transformed into the happiest 9 year old on the planet. “I have a picture of that night tucked away somewhere I am sure,” Gabe laughed thinking about the goofy things he's done over the years for his son, while she looked around for other pictures. On the other side of the kitchen window hung a metal sculpture of an adult turtle followed by a baby turtle. Anna had similar stickers in the back window of her car. She actually had 6 turtles total, two large ones and four small and once upon a time she had hoped to have the need to install all of them to represent a larger family, but the two turtles still swim together as she looks out her rear view mirror.
 Anna launched into similarly comical attempts at doing things for Chris. Now that she relaxed it felt so easy to talk to him. He laughed in all the right places and she kept looking to see the dimple in his right cheek when he smiled. Gabe, intrigued by her, began to wonder how difficult it must be to raise a son by herself. All the boy activities came naturally to him, but she would have to make an effort to take Chris camping, play sports, and do all the crazy things a boy wanted to do. Has she always been interested in trains and ninja turtles or did she become involved in all that because she raised a boy on her own? Soon, an hour had passed. From time to time they heard the boys running somewhere down below, shouts and cheers floated up to the patio, but as yet they hadn't seen any sign of them. Gabe assured her they were fine. “There isn't anything down there to hurt them. They are probably in the tree house in the avocado tree, or the fort Sean thinks I don't know about that he is fashioning under the lemon tree.” Gabe raised his eye brows as he mentioned the hideaway and Anna tried not to smile but it just escaped as a smirk. She wanted to run down and see the tree house. Was it something they had done together or did Gabe just pay someone to come and build it? Gabe walked over to the fence and called down the hill asking the boys to come up so they could all go swimming.  The two dogs made it up the hill first and Gabe laughed at his pets who obviously heard the word “swimming” and took off running up the stairs. A beautiful black lab bounded from behind a bush at the
edge of the patio, his tongue hanging out. Gabe threw a toy in the pool and the dog reacted by jumping in after it. A blond lab slipped past Anna and without waiting dove into the water too. “Meet Torti and Sunshine. Torti is the black boy, short for Tortuga, the Spanish word for turtle. You can see why by the way he swims. Sean named our only girl Sunshine because we found her last year wandering around the property in Hawaii. The only sunny day our entire visit, we managed to coax her to come to us. She's still barely more than a puppy.” Gabe, clearly proud of his dogs, bent down over the side of the pool to rub Torti's head. “I think dogs are important for any family, especially with kids,” he added. A little out of breath, their faces streaked with sweat and dust, Sean and Chris surfaced excited and ready to jump in the water.  Sean sprang at the pool and Gabe, with quick reflexes, grabbed his son around the middle. They swung in a circle bringing Sean back onto the cement. “Head to the shower first. I don't want the filter clogged with all the dirt in Santa Monica you've managed to collect and bring up with you,” Gabe chuckled and raised his bare foot at his son. Anna panicked for a second thinking he would really kick him, but a second later he aimed a soft kick at his son’s backside barely brushing him as he walked away toward the outdoor shower beside the back door. “Chris, you get to wash off next, you're just as filthy as Sean is,” Gabe rubbed the top of Chris' head. In mocking gestures he pretended his hand was contaminated.  With a sweeping motion he wiped it on his jeans unexpectedly leaving a dark streak on his thigh. Anna laughed at the
act and laughed harder at Gabe's reaction to the new stain on his pants. Chris turned to ask if he really had shower off like Gabe said. Anna nodded and replied, “Go on, the pool will still be here when you get back,” Anna winked at Chris and motioned to the shower. Gave asked Anna, “Do you have your suit on already or do you need to change?” as he stripped off his jeans to reveal orange and yellow swim trunks. “I need to change,” she responded and he walked with her to show her the bathroom. He indicated the guest room next door where she could leave her clothes and things. She turned into the bathroom and had almost shut the door when Sean and Chris who were waiting desperately on the edge of the pool yelled “They're back, cannon ball,” followed a large splash shooting water into the air and all over Gabe. Gabe stripped off his shirt and dove in after them. She smiled again, boys will be boys and closed the door for some privacy. Alone in the bathroom, she looked in the mirror, her hair had escaped the pony tail in puffy clumps. Most of her mascara had rubbed off from dabbing her eyes as she laughed earlier. Staring herself in the mirror, she realized she was, in fact, attracted to Gabe, but the next second she steeled herself. He is a good looking man and a good father but he's a married man and here and now she needed to stick him permanently in the friend zone, if that. She couldn't erase what Rose had said. She changed into her suit and slipped on a pair of dark blue cotton shorts over the suit bottoms.  She felt she still needed the shorts to cover her well endowed rear end. She definitely wasn't the model thin type Gabe probably saw every day on the set.
“Friend Zone!” she actually said out loud in a shouted whisper hoping no one else heard her talking to herself. Gabe splashed around and dunked the boys when he looked up to see Anna standing in the doorway. Her turquoise suit brought out a glow in her face, but she still wore shorts over her suit. She tried to decide if she would join in, sit on the side, or occupy the lounge chair. One glance at Gabe with his shirt off, well toned and naturally tan skin, and she decided the farther away she remained the safer and better for all of them. The dogs were right in the middle of the melee, offering barks to the noisy play. For 15 minutes she just sat there while Gabe periodically glanced over at her hoping she would get in the pool too. “Maybe we should go get your mom and pull her in,” Gabe suggested to Chris with a sideways look and a smirk. Chris wholeheartedly agreed and all three of them jumped out of the pool and ran to Anna. Her face suddenly paled. The boys each grabbed an arm to pull her in, but she panicked when Gabe just scooped her up and carried her over to the edge. “You can swim right?” he asked Anna seriously over her increasingly louder protests. Before she could answer Chris chimed in, “She can swim,” giggling at his mom's predicament. “Move over, Sunshine,” Sean called to the yellow lab to move out of his dad's pathway. Still holding Anna, Gabe jumped into the deep end. As his feet left the cement he pushed her from him so they didn't crash together as they entered the water. They entered with a spectacular splash and then both sputtered to the surface. Anna, a good swimmer, easily made her way underwater
back to where Gabe tread water, determined to get her revenge. Surfacing, she immediately threw her hands on his head to dunk him. Taking her cue, Sean and Chris jumped back in the pool attacking Gabe as well. A few minutes later, Anna took the opportunity to disappear and swam along the bottom to the other side of the pool, leaving the boys to continue what she started. After several minutes of trying to drown Gabe, Chris dared Sean to a diving competition. First one dove then the other, followed by a remarkable front flip by Gabe. After a few turns each, Chris dove in and swam to where his mom hung on the edge of the pool. “Mom, it's your turn. We've all dived in several times and you haven't done it even once. Come on, you gotta,” he coaxed. She swam over to the metal ladder and grabbed hold of the rungs. In a swift motion, she pulled herself up and out of the water but her shorts weighted with pool water slipped off her hips and down around her ankles exposing the whitest legs Gabe had ever seen. She yelled in dismay and grabbed for the treacherous piece of clothing which had abandoned her when she most needed it. Her face blushed bright red as she realized she had not only exposed her glowing white thighs, but she was falling backside first back into the pool.  “Mom, that was the worst dive I've ever seen,” Chris teased her when she surfaced, then he offered to fetch her shorts which had sunk to the bottom. Chris and Sean both raced to the bottom of the pool, and Chris came up with the dark blue fabric in his hand. Anna slipped the shorts back on and headed to the shallow end this time so she could exit while holding them up and not risk further exposure.
As she walked around the cement pathway surrounding the pool, she shook her head in embarrassment.  The pink humiliated tint to her cheeks reflected in the sun. She stood on the edge of the diving board staring them down. She wanted to impress the boys a little, to show off if possible. It might make up for the obvious lack of coordination she had shown a few minutes earlier. She also wanted to prove that she was not quite old yet. She nodded her head when she had finally decided, her mouth curved on one side into a mischievous grin. “I might be crazy, but I'm going to try it. No guts no glory,” she whispered more to herself than her audience She turned to face away from them with her back to the water. “No way, what's she doing?” asked Sean. Chris just shrugged, not imagining what his mom might do. She waited momentarily trying to get up her nerve. Her arms swung over her head in a move she had done a hundred times before, but hadn't tried in at least ten years. Arching her back as much as she could, she dove in backward, hands entering first. She remembered to blow out through her nose to avoid water painfully entering her brain. She pulled herself up before she touched the bottom. When she reached the surface, she heard Sean and Chris erupt into cheers and chants that Anna had won the dive contest. Gabe clapped and yelled too. Sean whispered to his dad, “Isn't she a cool mom?” Gabe nodded in agreement wondering to himself why his heart had started racing. He attributed it to the half second as she dove when her tankini top floated up and her white stomach was exposed.
Hormones, nothing more, nothing less. With that thought, he pulled himself up on the side of the pool and announced, “Time to start grilling the steaks.” The boys decided to make up crazy strokes and to swim laps across the pool to see who could swim faster. Anna walked out of the shallow end, grabbed her towel and dried off. Her shorts were still dripping after several minutes so she slipped them off under her towel, made sure to wrap it tightly, and went into the house to ask if she could help with the food. There in the kitchen stood Rose. Anna's face brightened when she saw her. “I brought some vegetables and fruit. I figured Gabe wouldn't even think of it and I was right,” she said smiling.  Rose ran her hand along his shoulder and messed up his still wet hair. He looked sheepishly at her and admitted the bean dip and corn tortilla chips were the only dishes remotely plant based. Anna smiled at the two of them and offered to help arrange the new contribution on a plate for them to sample. “Did you enjoy your day?” Anna questioned. Rose told them about the lovely drive up the coast. She and Doug, Anna assumed Doug was just a friend, had toured a small Native American museum in one of the small cities north of Ventura. Rose described the beautiful furniture and décor at various antique shops they visited. Anna shared how much she really loved old furniture. She admitted to being a bit of a trash digger. “I stop and pick up good furniture people leave on the curb by the trash or leave in alleys behind apartments. If it is real wood or metal in good condition I bring it home to paint or refinish and sell. I love taking something incredibly ugly and putting in a few hours work to end with a lovely, useful piece for some family to really enjoy and make good use of.”
Anna knew she babbled on, but she really loved her work and her thoughts drifted a little when she thought of how most people don't understand the treasures she found in the items they just  throw it away Rose described a few cute quilt shops and pulled a lovely flowered fabric out of a shopping bag. When she suggested it would make the perfect curtains for the family room, Gabe responded good-naturedly, “Stop trying to decorate my house.” Anna stiffened at his attitude again. 'His house,' as if Rose didn't have any claim to it. Rose shrugged her shoulders responding with a laugh, “You can't blame a girl for trying.” Gabe turned and whispered to Anna loud enough so Rose could easily hear, “Bet you anything that fabric will be hanging from my windows by next week, regardless of what I say to her.” He noticed that she no longer smiled. Anna grabbed a carrot and made an excuse that someone should probably be watching the pool, “for safety sake.” She turned and left both Gabe and Rose wondering what had just happened. A few minutes later, Rose came outside to say hello to Sean before she announced she was leaving. Anna reacted, obviously surprised. She obviously spent plenty of time with Sean throughout the week and didn't feel the need to stick around on the weekends to spend time with both of them. Rose waved goodbye and walked herself to the door. Gabe tended to the nearly finished steaks, while Sean and Chris climbed out of the water and dried off. With Gabe outside, Anna felt safe to go into the kitchen and bring the remaining food out to the patio table. Once he turned off the grill, they sat down at the table outside to eat. All the food tasted delicious, and the boys kept them
entertained with tales of their adventures and antics from earlier in the afternoon. Chris was an avid fan of all rocks and sticks. They had each gathered a collection of various size sticks to act as swords, staffs, and wands. Chris pretended to be a mage, but Sean, not exactly sure what a mage was, opted to be a wizard. They followed a quest through the hillside hunting elusive treasures and magical stones to increase their powers. The dogs were trusted animal allies brought along to sniff out dangerous traps and pesky rodents. Gabe kept glancing at Anna, making her more and more uncomfortable. He finally realized he hoped to hear her laugh again and smile a real smile, the kind that reached her eyes. Coming to his senses he shook his head with a snap to clear his thoughts. Rising hastily, he started clearing the dishes. Unsure what to do, Anna asked the boys if they were done and then took an armful of dishes into the kitchen. Gabe faced away from the kitchen entry, loading the dishwasher. She wanted to place the dishes next to him on the counter, but he shifted unexpectedly. He bumped her arm and the last plate slipped through her fingers. She grasped at its edges before pinning it on Gabe's extended foot, only inches from it crashing to the floor. His fingers brushed hers as he struggled to pick up the plate as well. Once the dish sat firmly on the counter, he looked at her and seemed to want to say something but only managed, “Thank you for helping.” She stared at the floor, only briefly peeking up at him, never meeting his eyes. “Sean really had fun with the two of you today. He thinks you are a really cool mom. He's said so twice now,” Gabe added. Anna smiled, for real this time, and echoed that she and
Chris had enjoyed the afternoon. “Especially when I won the diving contest,” Anna tried to keep her tone light. Gabe swallowed hard and commented Anna and Chris would need to come back again for a rematch. “Maybe next Sunday would work for you,” he offered hopefully. “Maybe,” Anna answered curtly, in a quiet and reserved tone, as though it would be a great sacrifice to do so. Decision made, she turned and hurried out of the kitchen. “Chris, it's time to get changed into your dry clothes,” she called. Both he and Sean complained loudly. She explained, “I have to work early tomorrow and we still have a drive ahead of us. Sean can come over again on Thursday if Rose can bring him again. Sean, why don't you have her call me and tell me if it's ok?” She watched Sean run to ask his dad. She was surprised when he promptly returned to say his dad had said yes and Rose would bring Sean down. “As long as you can bring me home again, he says it's fine.” “Don't you need to check with her to make sure she can drive him?” Anna turned to ask Gabe. “No, she'll do it. She's not doing anything else that morning, so it will be fine,” Gabe answered very sure of himself. This time Anna frowned visibly and she wondered at the wisdom of allowing Chris to spend time with Sean at all.  She would make a point of having a serious discussion with Rose when she saw her Thursday morning. He wondered at her disapproving face. How had things gone wrong this time? Women, who in the
world can understand them? After changing in the spare bedroom Anna and Chris gathered their things and said good bye. “Please thank Rose again for the fruits and veggies and thank you for the dinner and a good afternoon.” Anna's words were warm and friendly but with an edge to her voice. They walked out to the car and drove away with a wave to Sean as they left. That night after Sean had gone to bed, Gabe sat on the couch still thinking about their guests. He enjoyed having them over. Both Anna and Chris were nice and friendly, most of the time. A few scattered moments seemed like Anna was mad at him. Who is she anyway to drive me crazy like this? She's probably some anti-depressant popping, overly judgmental wannabe soccer mom who decided she didn't like something and criticized me for it. That's fine, let her be that way. I'll invite Chris over again because Sean likes him, but next time I'll just ignore her the way she ignored me. She wouldn't even look me in the eyes when I spoke to her. Stuck up woman!
Chapter 4
Thursday morning Gabe left for filming early like usual, but as soon as he walked on the set he knew it would not be a good day. Things had been going wrong all week and he just wasn't as focused as he should be. His normal make up artist was sick, sniffling and sneezing all over. Today was the last day of rehearsal and the first day of actual filming. They solved the blocking for a difficult scene. The first shot worked well and it should have been a warning. If the first shot is good, it is usually all down hill from there. A bit superstitious, but all too often true. He couldn't get through one line which made his co-star, Nica, smile and then crack up on subsequent takes. When he finally got through it she laughed so hard they had to re-take it anyway. Finally done, they took a small break while everything shifted for the next shot. He had just taken a sip of water when the lights flashed and went out. In near darkness, he knew better than to move.
On a stage there are a million loose pieces and cables running everywhere. It’s much too dangerous to attempt in the dark. Off to his left he heard a crash. Evidently, someone had not been as wise and had tripped over a piece of equipment. Hopefully, nothing too critical has been broken, person or object. Soon the backup lights turned on and Gabe realized the person in a heap on the floor was his co-star, Nica. Her ankle had twisted and she could not stand. A pile of microphone equipment lay at her side scattered where it had slid when she tripped over a cable. An assistant left to figure out the electricity issue while staff helped Nica to a chair and found some ice for her. The answer came back shortly. A delivery truck hit an electric pole. It would be the rest of the day before they could return to shooting. “That's a wrap for today,” the director announced and most everyone groaned. Missing today's work meant filming on Saturday and a long weekend for the editing crew.  Nothing could be done about it though. Slowly people start packing up and heading to dressing rooms lit only by flashlights. Gabe changed, washed off the makeup and left for the day. A beautiful summer morning greeted him and he pointed his car toward home. The clock showed just after 9am. He called Rose to tell her he was on his way home and to see if Sean was awake yet. “Of course he's awake,” she told Gabe, “Today is Thursday.” Puzzled as to why Thursday mattered, Gabe tried to remember what his son would be doing today. Chris' house. “We were just getting ready to leave,” Rose explained. “If you're coming home do you want to take him? I can certainly figure something else to do today.”
Maybe I could offer to take the boys somewhere instead of spending all day at Chris' house with his mom. “Sure, but can you meet me at the freeway exit? It would take too long otherwise and we'll be late,” Gabe asked. Rose agreed and then said good-bye. She piled Sean into the car with his collection of electronics to keep the two boys entertained. “Your dad is taking you instead. We're going to meet him and then he'll drive you the rest of the way,” Rose informed Sean. When Sean raised his eyebrows to ask why his dad was free, Rose explained the electrical situation and why Gabe had a random day off. Excitedly, Sean bounced in his seat for a second, but then settled down quickly when he thought about only getting to see his dad for a few minutes until he arrived at Chris. Gabe pulled into the parking lot of an L shaped strip mall and minutes later Rose drove in. Sean quickly changed cars, Rose handed Gabe the address, he could get directions on his phone, and the two of them headed out. “I thought, maybe, I would go with you and we could take Chris out somewhere fun. That way we can spend the whole day together, not just a little while,” Gabe offered. Sean eagerly agreed and began to think of where he would like to go. The drive didn't take too long, only slowing where two freeways merged near the international airport. Soon they pulled into the driveway and Sean sprang out of the car. Gabe emerged slower. He felt slightly like a man approaching a firing squad. Will she be the fun person or the cold indifferent person? She seemed to flip back and forth without notice.  Chris had already opened the door by the time Gabe approached the porch.
“My dad wants to hang out with us today. He doesn't have to work,” Sean blurted out as he walked in. Anna's head popped out of the kitchen when she heard Sean's announcement. Gabe smiled, deciding to be friendly regardless of how she responded. Anna, unsure how to approach the situation, kept quiet until Gabe explained he didn't want to lose a rare day off to spend with Sean. “I thought, maybe, they would like to go to the Aquarium,” Gabe told her indicating the boys with a jerk of his head, “I hope this doesn't mess up any plans you may have made. You're welcome to come too.” Anna's face froze in a look Gabe read as unsure, distrusting. She turned to look at Chris, to ask what he thought. When he answered “Yes” she consented. She wanted to come along and would need just a few minutes to get ready to go. She asked them to sit down and make themselves comfortable until she returned. Gabe glanced around the living room, small and cozy. Unique touches made it a home; large pillows in the corner for lounging in front of the TV, a small cabinet filled with China dishes, pictures covered two walls in large groupings. Gabe walked over to one wall with family pictures interested in taking a closer look. There were pictures of Chris as a baby and toddler, then pictures of Anna and Chris together as he got older. They must have divorced when Chris was about 3 or 4 because there aren't any pictures of the two of them together before that age. She must not want to hang up photos with his dad. On the other wall hung a few decorative frames and pictures, mixed in with large family photos. He studied the photos with various other adults he assumed were her parents and siblings, and their kids. Mostly blond hair and blue eyes with a few brown
heads scattered in the grouping. She looks like her mom.  It only took a few minutes for Anna and Chris to get their shoes on and be ready to go. “Should I make up some sandwiches for lunch or bring snacks?” Anna asked Gabe. “We can just get something there, right?” Gabe answered, “No use hauling it all around.” Anna frowned. What now? Can't I ever do anything without her disapproval? She grabbed the bag with bottles of water and sun screen and her camera and they headed to Gabe's car. The boys automatically waited to jump in the back seat so they could talk together which left Anna in the front seat with Gabe. He didn't unlock the doors until he walked around to the passenger side. He opened the front door and stood there waiting for Anna to get in. She stood stunned for a moment, not understanding. Gabe could see the wheels literally turning as she finally grasped his attempt to be chivalrous. Disbelief appeared on her face as she sat down and Gabe closed the door. He chuckled silently to himself. At least my mom raised me to be a gentleman. For once Anna doesn't seem to disapprove. The conversation was light as Anna directed him in the easiest way to get to the Aquarium and where to park. The boys sprang from the car once it stopped, but Anna had to gather her bag which gave Gabe time to walk most of the way to the passenger side before she opened the door. He waited for her to climb out and again shut the door for her. She stared at him as though he had sprouted tentacles, until
suddenly a smug look crossed her face and she walked away seeming satisfied she had figured him out. She determined that he must be a chauvinist and acting like a gentleman fits his perspective of women in their proper place. The boys were racing down the pathway while Gabe and Anna struggled to make polite conversation. When Anna asked if Gabe and Sean had ever been to the Aquarium before, he shared a funny story about Sean nearly falling into the manta ray tank. Anna relaxed while she listened and laughed as he acted out juggling a four year old son and an armful of souvenirs without feeding any of them to the small sharks that shared the petting area with the rays. The boys waited for them at the front door and Gabe approached the window and bought four tickets. Anna objected to his paying for them, but he insisted, it was his idea to visit the Aquarium and he would cover it. She seemed uncomfortable for a moment, like she would protest further but then looked visibly relieved? He handed the tickets to the greeter and then listened for the boys reaction when they stared up at the enormous whale suspended from the ceiling. It is a full size replica blue whale spanning from one end of the building to the other. Even though he had expected it, it amazed him. Anna stared up at it too and then nearly walked into a mom stopped to pull something from her stroller. Gabe smiled as he reached out to catch Anna's arm and keep her from falling when she tripped over the stroller wheel. Her face flushed red and she apologized over and over for not watching where she walked. Finally, she turned to face Gabe and thanked him for saving her added embarrassment and injury.
“'Taint nothin' ma'am,” he replied with a slow drawl and a broad smile, “Savin' damsels in d'stress is what I do.” He pretended to remove a hat and bow toward her. She couldn't help laughing at him. Taking encouragement from her response, he grabbed her hand, “We had better catch up to the boys. They will have seen the whole thing by the time we get out of the lobby.” They walked toward the far end of the room where the boys were mesmerized by a large shark swimming back and forth in a floor to ceiling tank. “Can we go outside first?” Sean asked pointing to the door. Chris nodded awaiting their response. Gabe pushed open the door and waved them all outside. Anna and Gabe followed the boys around the various pools. They enjoyed each area until they ended up at the shark lagoon where they can pet sharks and rays.  Anna noticed the looks from other parents, mostly the moms, but she also noticed Gabe seemed oblivious to the stares. After an hour outside, a dark haired woman approached him to ask if he was indeed Gabe Josephs. When he admitted it, she asked for a picture with him. “Are you here by yourself or did you bring your kids?” Gabe asked her looking at the kids around them. “My kids are here, but they're climbing on the large squid,” she looked their way then quickly turned back to smile at him. She touched his arm and shook her long, dark brown hair, glancing demurely from under her thick lashes. She handed her phone to a woman standing nearby. Wrapping her arm around his, she leaned in close to him for the photo. He smiled for the photo, said thanks, and turned back to see where Sean had walked off to. She busied herself posting the photo.
Sean and Chris announced they were “STARVING!” in the way only growing boys are. Once again Gabe insisted on treating them and walked off to hunt for hot dogs, chips, and drinks. Anna, Chris, and Sean found a table off in a corner out of the sun. Even in the shade the hard resin table felt hot as they sat down and burned against the backs of their legs. Interested to know Sean and Gabe better, Anna asked, “What plans do you have for the rest of the summer until school starts?” They discussed their plans for beach days and trips to Disneyland, those two were high on the boys’ lists of things they wanted to do. Once Gabe ordered the food, Anna sent Chris over to help fill drinks and direct him back to their table. While they waited, Anna took advantage of a chance to ask Sean about his dad. “Do lots of people recognize your father?” “Yah, most of the time we're OK, but every once in a while people start taking pictures of him or filming us and stuff. Once we even got stopped by a camera crew when we were leaving a restaurant after dinner,” Sean explained. “It used to bother me, when I was a kid, but now I think it's pretty funny. People think he's like cool or something. He's so not!” His last statement made Anna laugh hard. She could understand why fame wouldn't appeal to a 12 year old. She could also imagine that as good looking and talented as the rest of the world found him, to Sean he's just a dad; old, embarrassing, and a bit annoying. Gabe and Chris arrived with the food and started to pass out cups of soda, chips, fruit and hot dogs. The food was quickly inhaled and Chris finished off the orange Anna hadn't gotten to yet. She protested and he opened his mouth to offer it back to her.
Sean, watching Chris, started laughing so hard he choked and soda came out his nose, which sent Chris into uncontrollable giggles too. Gabe patted Sean on the back to stop the choking. Anna guessed she would have to Heimlich someone before the meal finished. They gathered up the trash and Anna wiped down the table explaining it bothered her when people leave their crumbs and mess around, so she tries not to. Both Gabe and Chris rolled their eyes, obviously cleaning public places was not a high priority. Sean dumped the tray into the trash can and they headed inside to the air conditioning. They hadn't walked even a few feet inside when another mom approached Gabe and asked for a picture. Again he asked if she had kids and this time she pulled them over to be in the picture. Other people began to wonder what was going on and came over. It's always nice to meet fans. Critics and box office numbers are so impersonal. I appreciate that they enjoy what I do. Soon a small group had gathered and Gabe spent a full ten minutes posing for pictures. Anna volunteered to take most of them. Is she actually being helpful or does she just enjoy part of the lime light? Too often he had been around women, in the business or out, who craved the attention he received. Usually pretty obvious, he could tell by the comments they made. Either they protested too much about the annoying interruptions or they dropped hints hoping there would be more photographers around. Gabe was definitely not George Clooney. He didn't need to worry about paparazzi or being hounded by fans, only occasionally groups would form to get pictures or autographs, following each
others lead. Anna hasn't said anything about it. She seems fine taking these pictures, smiling and helpful, but not drawing attention to herself. I think I put up with her judgmental attitude because she's a riddle I want solved. Why does she act this way? What is she thinking? Once I figure it out, she won't be such a draw for me. The boys were bored after 3 minutes and Anna gave them permission to go look around while she and Gabe were occupied. “Stay together,” she called after them. He watched the boys leave, wishing he could go too. It's hard to divide my time. Sean and Chris will be fine for a few minutes on their own.  His willingness to stand there, pose and smile with people he didn't even know, surprised her. Gabe noticed Anna started to get bored; she no longer talked with the people waiting. A distant look crossed her face unless someone spoke to her and then she smiled and conversed politely. He decided it was time to go. “I really need to spend the rest of the day with my son,” he announced to those still standing there. “How about we take one more group photo for those of you still waiting?” They all gathered in, the woman on his left put her arm around him. “Say cheese,” Anna called and took the photo with those who were left. After the 'click' Gabe walked away with a wave. The lady whose phone they used took charge of sending it to all the parties. At that moment, Anna noticed the friendly facade slip away, guessing he kept up his smile for the fans, but would rather spend the day with Sean. They walked down the hallway leading through the display tanks. They both looked around for a glimpse of the boys. “Down this way is the tunnel where you can walk
underneath the tank and see the sharks and fish. Let's look for the boys there,” Gabe motioned to the left. Anna went uncharacteristically quiet. Typically a friendly, people person, too much small talk with strangers exhausted her. She needed a moment to think and get her energy back. “Sorry, about all the pictures. You were a trooper taking all those photos,” he tried to draw a conversation out of her. Anna smiled and assured him it was no big deal. “You did all the work. I'm not sure I would have the patience to spend with so many people,” she told him. “Do you actually enjoy the attention?” “Most of the time, I like meeting people. It's kind of my feedback about how I did on a project. I appreciate that people want to watch me act. If not for them I would have to be an accountant or something. They are the reason I'm able to have such a fun job,” he laughed to himself at the idea of working in an office all day. Anna only responded with a smile, but at that moment spotted Chris watching a long legged crab crawl over a rock in one of the tanks built into the wall. Gabe saw Sean at the same time and they sped up to catch up with the boys. Gabe grabbed Sean from behind and kissed him on the cheek. Sean erupted in protest, “Dad, I'm 12 years old and you cannot be kissing me in public.” Of course, Gabe kissed him again, just to prove he could. Sean made a scene of wiping off the kiss contamination with his hand and then cleaning his hand on Gabe's shirt sleeve. “Dad, we should get some salt water fish and add them to our pool!” Sean suggested. Gabe made a face and reminded him it would be rather
gross to be swimming through fish poop and the dogs would probably eat the fish so there would be fish guts in the pool too. Sean considered this and struggled to decide the better option, having a clean pool to swim in or getting to see the fish guts when the dogs ate them. They were fascinated by all the different types of animals. Coral, sea stars, and mollusks covered the rocks and the bottom of the tank. Orange, purple, white, and brown fish flitted around under the illuminated water. Sea otters played under the water and floated on top. They looked just like animated stuffed animals. Sean turned to Gabe and asked if he could paint his room like an underwater scene. Gabe suggested starting with a few posters and maybe curtains, instead of the whole room. “We'll ask Grandma to take you to find some good fabric and she can get someone to sew them up for you,” Gabe suggested. The boys stopped to watch a frog being fed some shrimp while Anna and Gabe continued walking around the corner and into the next section of viewing windows. “Wouldn't Rose sew for you? She spoke about putting up curtains the other day,” Anna asked. “She doesn't actually sew, she just shops and then takes the materials over to her seamstress,” Gabe told her. “She would go to all that trouble and you won't even let her put them up?” Anna started to become annoyed again remembering the previous conversations. “I don't mind her doing it for me, but it's my house and I should be able to decide what I put up in my own home,” Gabe didn't understand what happened and why Anna's demeanor turned cold. “I just can't believe you think like that. You seem like a nice
guy and a good father, but the way you treat Rose is disgusting. Do you even love her at all?” Anna's voice started to rise and Gabe glanced around, thankful they were in a fairly deserted room at the moment. “Of course, I love her, what do you mean 'the way I treat her?” Gabe responded becoming more upset himself. “'MY house, MY decision.' You volunteered her to bring Sean down today without even asking her, she doesn't even want to be around you on weekends. What kind of a relationship is that? Is that the way you want to teach your son to treat his wife?” Anna tried to keep her voice quiet, but her anger boiled over. “No. What do you know about our relationship anyway? And what does that have to do with Sean's wife?” Gabe asked becoming more confused at her thinking. “The way a father treats his wife has a lot to do with how a boy grows and treats his,” she answered him. “I know that. What does that have to do with Rose?” Gabe tried to figure out her point. “Rose, your wife!” Anna answered in a sarcastic tone. “Wife?!” At that point Gabe connected the dots and began to laugh. Not a chuckle, but a deep, can't breathe, tears streaming from his eyes laugh. He folded in half and finally collapsed on to the floor. Anna felt her face turn red with anger. She felt like a cartoon character with steam evaporating from her ears. At last, Gabe stopped long enough to take a deep breath and start to talk. He sat on the floor, leaned up against the wall holding a tank of miniature jelly fish, each one the size of his thumb. He wiped his eyes and lifted up from the floor to pull his phone from his back pocket. Flipping through his photos, he pulled up a picture. “I need to show you something.” Gabe said calmly to Anna,
hoping she would listen long enough for him to explain. Her scowl eased, so he extended his hand to pull her down onto the floor next to him. She sat down beside him, careful not to sit too close. She was still mad. “First off, Rose is going to be thrilled you thought she is young enough to be my wife. You're going to be her new favorite person,” he added with a broad smile. Next, he showed her his phone with a picture of him, a young woman who strongly resembled him, Rose, and a man old enough to be Gabe's father. Anna stared at him quizzically, wondering at his point and how would it explain his attitude. “This is my sister and these are my parents,” Gabe laughed again remembering the misunderstanding. Anna gaped, flabbergasted, her mind reeling to process the new revelation. “But you look so different,” she protested. Rose's light hair and eyes and pale complexion were exactly the opposite of Gabe's dark hair, brown eyes, and tan features. The man had darker hair but none of the chiseled features of his son. “My younger sister, Rachel, and I are adopted,” he told her. “Nobody knows this and I would appreciate it if you kept it to yourself.” He looked at her directly until she nodded in agreement. “I was 2 and my sister a baby when we were put up for adoption. All I know about my birth parents is my mother came from Hawaii and they lived here for at least a little while before she gave us up. When she was pregnant he bailed. She didn't think she could take care of two babies on her own and we came to live with my mom and dad. I don't even remember my birth mom.” Anna nodded as she understood and flushed pink in horror
as she considered what she had been thinking about him. “I'm sorry. I thought you were this awful man who considered everything his property and didn't give his wife a say in anything. I had imagined Sean learning those behaviors and passing them onto Chris.” She took a deep breath and continued. “I just automatically assumed the worst. I guess that's why they say to never assume,” she shrugged pleading with for him to understand and forgive her critical treatment. She explained how she had even planned to talk to Rose when she  dropped Sean off. “I felt so bad for her, I wanted to help,” she practically whispered to herself, humiliated. Gabe laughed lightly and assured her there was nothing to forgive. “In fact, I respect that you were willing to protect not just your son, but my son and my mom from what would have been some pretty mean actions on my part; if they had been true.” He covered her hand with his and squeezed to reinforce his point. Finally, Anna started to giggle about it. “Your mom is beautiful, I just knew she was young enough to be Sean's mom.” A sudden point occurred to her, “So, where is Sean's mom? Does he spend much time with her?” At that moment, the boys came running around the corner and seeing their parents on the floor, dog piled on. Thankfully, they had untangled themselves and gotten off the floor by the time the Aquarium employee came walking around checking each of the rooms. The employee did a double take and approached Gabe to shake his hand and say hello. “I am a fan of yours. I really liked 'Soldier on,'” he explained. “My wife, of course, likes the gushy romance movies, so I've seen a
few of those you have done as well.” Gabe offered to take a picture with the man and then asked him to take a picture of Chris, Anna, Gabe and Sean all together. He gladly complied, sure his wife would be very jealous and asked for an autograph for her to make up for it, which Gabe provided. Chris announced they had seen “Everything!” and he was ready to head home. Glancing at her watch, Anna realized she would be late for her tutoring appointment. Her face flashed with disappointment. “What's wrong now?” Gabe asked tentatively. She explained her dilemma. “Why don't we drop you off ? The boys and I will go shopping for dinner. We'll pick you up and we can eat together?”  The two boys eagerly pushed her to accept his offer. “You didn't have anything else to today, did you?” She thought of the sewing order she should have finished, but dismissed it. She could finish it after work tomorrow night. “Nothing that can't wait. I had fun today,” she said as the right corner of her mouth turned up into her normal crooked smile. She still felt ridiculous, which made her reply shy and reserved. Gabe ran off to get the car and drove down to pick them up near the exit of the parking structure. Anna gave him directions where to go while Sean and Chris debated what they wanted for dinner. They still hadn't agreed when they left Anna in front of her client's house. While the hour passed, Gabe talked the boys into fajitas for dinner, ice cream and brownies for desert.  They picked out every ingredient Chris guessed they didn't have and arrived back at the client's house with a few minutes to spare before Anna finished. Back at Chris and Anna's house, Gabe, Sean, and Chris insisted on cooking and giving Anna a night off.
“Halleluah! One night I don't have to cook.” I can save the left over burritos for tomorrow night, she added silently to herself. Not wanting to watch the destruction happening in her kitchen, Anna went off to put some time into the work she had neglected earlier. Now that she learned Gabe was actually single, she had a hard time not thinking about him. “There has to be something wrong with him. He just seems too perfect. He's probably secretly an axe murderer,” she laughed to herself.  “I'll just stay focused on being friends.” Gabe had the boys chopping and preparing while he cooked the meat. He showed them what seasonings to use and how to slice it thinly. Every man needs to know how to prepare tasty meat and at least 3 good meals to impress a girl. Fajitas are easy because it is really hard to screw up chopping vegetables.  The smell of onion and spices cooking drew Anna into the kitchen just before it finished frying. She pointed out where she kept the dishes and Sean set the table. She showed him which side the forks belong and to place a folded a napkin underneath. Spoons and knives weren't needed so putting the cups in the upper right hand corner completed each setting. Gabe brought the food to the table and they all sat down to eat. Gabe grabbed a tortilla off the stack before Sean reminded him they should say grace. He quickly set the tortilla on his plate, not wanting to put back food he had already touched. Chris folded his hands, but Sean suggested they hold hands instead. Gabe and Anna reached across the table on one side and Chris and Sean on the other. “Almost like a family,” Chris suggested and Sean nodded in agreement. Anna chuckled nervously, but Gabe flushed pink and
looked away. Sean insisted Gabe bless the food and he stumbled through the prayer, clearly not accustomed to it. The food was delicious and they joked and told stories while they ate. Both boys tried to out do the other. The plates were emptied and Anna insisted on washing the dishes, “Since you men did the shopping and cooking, I can clean up. Chris why don't you show Sean your new legos and Gabe can relax for a few minutes.” She grabbed an armful of plates, silverware, and cups and headed to the counter. She rarely used her dishwasher since she and Chris didn't really use all that many dishes, but she felt grateful to have it whenever anyone came over to eat. The table cleared, Gabe started gathering up the extra food and putting it in containers. “You're supposed to be relaxing,” Anna said in an authoritative tone. “I can't sit there and watch you work. I just don't have it in me. So, you had better tell me where you keep the storage containers to put away the food or you'll end up with a ton of plastic bags in the fridge because I know where you keep those.” Gabe echoed the determined tone right back at her. “The bottom cupboard, over to the right,” she tried to hold back a smile but it escaped as her trademark sideways grin. She wiped down the table, counters, and stove while he finished putting away the food and then handed the remaining dishes for her to put in the dishwasher. Finally, he agreed to sit with his feet up on a chair while she swept, “because I can't get it all with you underfoot,” and she hip checked him gently out of her way. Just as she finished, the boys came running in. “Can we have brownies now?” Chris asked his mom. Gabe smacked his hand to his
forehead, he had forgotten the desert. Anna just looked around at the clean kitchen in despair. “Paper plates,” she said nodding and Chris and Sean cheered. When the ice cream and brownies had disappeared Gabe announced, “Time to head home” and both boys vehemently disagreed. “I have to be at work early tomorrow. We lost a whole day today, so we have to make up for it.” Gabe said resignedly. Anna backed him up, even though she felt disappointed to see the day come to an end as well. Anna turned to Sean, “Thank you for taking us out today.” She paused to winked at Gabe,  “I'm glad you let your dad tag along too, even if he wouldn't let you swim in the shark tank. We'll have to go to the beach one day and see if we can get a shark there to eat you.” Chris waved bye and left to go back to his room as Gabe ushered Sean out the door. He clicked the remote and the car unlocked. Sean walked over and got in. Just before she shut the door, Gabe turned back toward her. His gaze focused on her eyes with such intensity she couldn't breathe.  “I had fun today, thank you for coming along, even though you thought you'd be spending the day with a misogynist,” he laughed quietly at their earlier misunderstanding. “Well, thank you for inviting us, even though you thought you'd be spending it with a cold, judgmental shrew,” she bent her head shyly, then shaking her hair from her eyes, returned his gaze, “You really were too generous today.” “With all these misunderstandings out of the way, we can be friends and it's no problem to treat friends to a day of adventure.”
Gabe knew he needed to walk away and go to the car, but didn't want to leave her. He almost felt a physical pull. “Dad, are we leaving?” Sean called from the car. Suddenly released, Gabe said a rapid good bye and turned toward the car, stopping briefly before he got in to wave. Anna stood in the doorway until the car started and they pulled away from the curb. The words “...we can be friends...” repeated in her head. “Friends, that's all we'll ever be. He's a TV and movie star, I'm sure he could have his choice of hot women. Besides, I wouldn't want all the hassle that comes with fame and fortune,” she tried to convince herself.
Chapter 5
A few days after the trip to the Aquarium, Chris flew out to visit his dad for the summer. The invitation for another Sunday pool party and Thursday visits were put on hold until the end of the summer. Anna had arranged extra work in Chris' absence, taking advantage of the free time when she didn't need to be home to care for him.  The first few days were always difficult. She usually cleared her schedule and took a mini vacation to get through the empty feeling that hit her whenever he left. After a few lunches out with friends and time to catch up on all the “mom” movies she had missed, she got to work; packing her schedule so she wouldn't miss him. The time flew by, she kept so busy. Gabe and Sean usually spent their summers in Hawaii, except when Gabe had a project to film. This year Sean celebrated his thirteenth birthday. Suddenly having a teenager was more than Gabe was ready for. I'm simply not old enough for him to be that big. They celebrated with a helicopter ride around the islands
and a marathon day of surfing. Rose and Doug flew over for a week and enjoyed their time relaxing. Sean had a group of friends he met up with every summer and he fell right back in with them. Gabe planned a large party and all the friends and their families came over to their house. Family is most important in Hawaiian culture and any excuse for a gathering turns into a huge dinner luau. They owned a little house on the north side of Kauai. There are fewer tourists and life is more on local time and pace. Gabe had always been curious about his biological parents. In the back of his mind, he felt that time on the island somehow connected him to roots, even though the roots didn't know he existed. Chris and Sean kept in touch over the summer through social sites. Playing online games allowed them to chat or work together. Their parents were “old school” and texted, called and emailed occasionally. Once they got past their initial assumptions about each other, Gabe and Anna found they actually had quite a bit in common and were becoming good friends. One Friday afternoon at the end of August Anna picked up a box of old clothes and shoes out of her car to deposit them in the donation box for homeless women and children. She had just finished another day helping organize a client's house. She enjoyed cleaning and organizing, she always had; cleaning for others held a lot more interest than cleaning her own house. She had worked with various clients for a couple years now and never could get over how people collect so much stuff. Closets full of clothes they never wear and linen cupboards full of old towels and rags. Plastic grocery bags and unopened packages of fast food utensils and napkins filled pantries and under the sink. All the old dishes meant something to someone, but sat around collecting
dust, cobwebs, and usually spiders. Anna didn't judge. Their collections help her earn money, but it felt so nice to come home to open spaces and organized shelves. She was not Martha Stewart by any means, but it wore her out if too much clutter accumulated. The phone in her pocket began to hum and she balanced a box on her hip against the car bumper and fished it out. She saw his name and number and smiled. “Hello,” she answered. “Hi, it's Gabe. I'm just calling to see if you were planning on coming over Sunday for more swimming and dinner,” Gabe mocked her tendency to change her mind continuously and live a bit more spontaneously. She decided to keep the light heartedness going, “Only if you've learned some new diving moves. It was really sad how easily I beat you last time.” “A few other friends are coming over, so maybe they will provide some competition for you. I do a mean cannon ball and that's about the limit of my diving talents.” Gabe countered. “Other friends?” Anna asked. “I do have a few of those,” He jokingly responded. Anna smiled through the phone and added, “Yes, I pick him up Saturday afternoon, so, we'll be there Sunday, about 2pm, just after church.” “Sean will be thrilled,” he said.  I'm thrilled too. “See you then, bye.” Anna also said good-bye and then hung up the phone. She dumped the box in the donations receptacle and wondered at why she no longer felt tired, but suddenly felt happy.
Sunday dawned overcast, but still warm. The first September weekend in Southern California usually is. As Anna and Chris pulled up, a horde of children ran out the front door and down the block. Chris jumped out of the car and followed after them. They ran to the end of the block and turned the corner. The door had been left open by the scurrying children and she walked in calling “hello” and knocking on the front door as she did. “Come in, we're all back here,” Gabe called. A head popped around the corner, but it didn't belong to Gabe. A medium height, light brown haired man stood in front of her. “Did you get run over by the wild banshees running away?” he asked her with a welcoming smile. He extended his hand, “Hi, I'm Matt. I'm Gabe's oldest friend.” She shook his hand which he pulled closer to himself. “Well, not that I'm old, but I've known him the longest. I can dish all the dirt you want to know about our resident Pretty Boy Actor.” The last three words he enunciated loudly so he could be heard in the other room. Matt placed his hand on Anna's back and guided her into the next room where four other adults sat in various chairs and an infant girl played on the tile. “Don't you start telling her about all my skeletons,” Gabe joked, “I just barely have her convinced I'm a decent human being.” Matt started introducing the women sitting on the couch at his left. Both of them were beautiful enough and well dressed enough to be models in Anna's opinion. Jayne extended a well manicured hand explaining she is the mother of two daughters now running amok and the little four year old boy following them around. Jayne greeted Anna with a friendly smile.
Rana, a tall and slender woman with dynamic features, didn't say anything, but gave Anna a small smile and a nod. Her long legs crossed in front of her extended from a short, tight skirt. Her shoes probably cost more than Anna's whole wardrobe. Adam sat in an upright chair across from the women. He introduced himself and explained he was Jayne's husband. He greeted Anna warmly as well, but with a look she felt unsure how to interpret. It seemed almost like he tried to size her up before he'd even met her. Michael, the last friend introduced, draped in a lounge chair in front of the tv watching college football. He said hello but quickly returned to the game, ignoring the rest of the group. Gabe came out of the kitchen and asked where the kids had run off to. Jayne answered, “They took off out the front door. The older boys were told to keep track of the littles.” “They turned right at the corner. Should I go look for them?” Anna asked. “They probably went around the block to come in the backyard from the bottom of the hill. I'll go look for them,” Gabe explained as he walked out the sliding door. Anna followed him to make sure Chris was with them and they were no longer roaming the streets. “You can relax, I'll check on them,” he told her. When she hesitated he asked, “Don't you trust me?” She paused and then realized she should relinquish control a little. She had become so used to taking care of everything herself she didn't let others help her even when she could really use it. She smiled reluctantly and motioned for him to proceed. He walked away past the pool to the yard, but she decided against returning to the living room. She wasn't avoiding his friends
but wasn't sure why she felt self conscious around them. Matt walked out to join her on the patio. “Has our fearless friend abandoned you here?” he asked placing his hand on her shoulder. “He offered to check on the kids himself, so I'm here waiting just enjoying the sunshine,” she tried to sound casual. “He's as big a kid as they are. He'll probably be running around with them and forget all about you,” Matt teased. Matt offered stories of Gabe's antics with Sean and his friends. Anna laughed at this new side of Gabe. Matt definitely had a way with words. She momentarily forgot the kids and the other adults still in the house. A shout just below the patio brought Anna back to the moment. Gabe came running up after the kids threatening to eat them if he caught them. He loved having so many children in the house. His home was often full as possible with friends, family and their kids. Even before Sean, whenever Gabe was around kids he felt like he could relax and just goof off in an innocent way you can't do with adults. He slowed so he didn't catch up to the littlest in the crowd, the four year old, Ryan, who  tried his best to keep up with the big kids. Once they had climbed the grassy hill to the patio, Gabe headed straight for Sean. Sean, already dressed in his swim suit, made a prime target. Gabe picked him up by his arm and left leg and with a large heave let go of him over the water. Accustomed to such treatment, his son gracefully turned in the air and dove in head first. Chris came next; he landed feet first in the deep end. Then Sofi, Jayne and Adam's eleven year old daughter, was sent flying. Tyler, Michael's ten year old son watched the chaos and started to
He made it behind a picnic table and ran around it as Gabe chased him. After the third circle, Gabe simply reached over the top of the table and picked Tyler up by his armpits. He lifted him over it and carried him back to the shimmering water. One, two, three and in he flew. Finally, Gabe caught little Ryan, who had seen Tyler's escape attempt and wanted one of his own. He tossed the boy to his waiting sister in the shallow end. Taking a moment to catch his breath, Gabe turned to see Jayne, Adam, and Rana as they came outside to watch the kids play. Michael still sat inside watching tv. Anna stood talking to Matt; he flirted shamelessly. Gabe knew him well enough to know when he took interest in a woman, and an unexpected knot developed in his stomach. " their swim trunks with tighty whitey's over them and towels pinned around their shoulders..." Gabe overheard Matt telling Anna. She laughed and looked toward Gabe. Matt must be desperate if he's telling embarrassing stories about me, but she doesn't seem to mind his company at all.  “Hey Matt,” Gabe called with a smile, “turn about is fair play. If you're revealing all my humiliating escapades I have a few stories of my own to tell about you.” Matt threw him a dirty look and finished telling her how Gabe and Sean had jumped off the brick wall pretending they could fly. Anna countered both of them by admitting she found it incredibly sweet that he would do something so obviously cringe worthy just because his son wanted to be a super hero. This point of view startled Gabe and he escaped the discomfort by going in the house to check on the food baking in the
oven. Matt felt upset that his attempt at charming Anna had so clearly backfired. He took another approach and asked her about her interests. They talked for a while about camping, hiking and running. Anna felt so boring. Her interests were actually sewing, what to make for dinner, and how do I keep the bathroom clean without having to actually clean it all the time. Making her own laundry soap and starting a garden rounded out any extra time she had in her schedule. None of these exactly interested a single forty-something guy with no kids. Education came up when Anna disclosed she tutored and sometimes substitute taught. Matt didn't have much knowledge or interest in school politics, but Adam interrupted him and caught up the conversation. Gabe returned outside and noticed Anna and Adam deep in discussion. He made a mental note to rescue her in a few minutes.  Adam had a way of becoming overly intense when he found someone to talk to about any of his favorite subjects. Arguing had always been a past time and convincing others of his opinion ranked among his favorite challenges. Gabe grabbed Matt's arm and asked in a whisper for his phone. Matt pulled it from his pocket thinking Gabe wanted to see something. Instead Gabe snatched it out of his hand and tossed it to Jayne, who had heard all the commotion and followed her husband outside. She caught it deftly as it bounced on her leg and into her lap. In a split second Matt realized Gabe's plan and began to fight back. Matt was taller than Gabe, but not as muscular. They battled across the patio until they fell, still wrestling into the deep end. Tyler barely escaped out of their way.
Matt, not pleased, made a large production of exiting the pool, peeling off his shoes and socks and dumping the water out. Gabe simply threw his shoes off toward the back door and peeled off his t-shirt before wringing out the bottom of his shorts smiling the whole time. Anna found her eyes flitting toward him. Matt sensing the opportunity waited until he saw Anna glance his way before he removed his shirt. He was much fitter than his slender build suggested and Anna found herself watching the whole production. She realized she was staring and returned her focus to the increasingly hostile conversation with Adam. Gabe felt a flash of irritation with Matt for his obvious play for attention. He reminded himself though, Matt was, in fact, a nice guy and his oldest friend. He deserves to find someone he cares about. He's been alone too long. I may not be involved with someone but at least I have Sean. Anna could do much worse, and she's not really the type he usually goes for, so maybe he's maturing a little. All thoughts of Matt and Anna left his mind when Gabe caught movement from the corner of his eye and turned to see Rana. She had changed out of her clothes into a swimsuit, a very small black bikini. She stopped in the doorway, then walked slowly to the jacuzzi. The day was warm, so the heat wasn't on, but the jets were bubbling. She is definitely a beautiful woman. That suit leaves nothing to the imagination. All three adult male heads watched her sit down on the side and slide into the foam. The younger twelve year old heads followed her too, which made both Anna and Gabe a little uncomfortable. Jayne grabbed her shoe and tossed it at her husband hitting
him in the arm. Adam smiled at his wife, blew her a kiss and continued the discussion which slowly became an argument with Anna. This interruption released the boys, young and old, from their temporary spell. The children continued playing and Matt went in the house to remove his wet clothing. He returned to the backyard clad in his own swim suit and began to rub sun screen over his chest, arms, and face. Once he rubbed the sun screen on all the body parts within reach, Matt walked toward the group and asked, “Anna, could you rub some on my back. I'll burn for sure without it.” Jayne let out a strange cough that sounded a lot like a sarcastic “Oh, please!” and Adam rolled his eyes, but Anna agreed to do it. She had sympathy for the 'solar impaired' as she called them, the poor folks who can burn if they simply think about going outside in the sun. Her sun exposure limit bordered on about 15 minutes. Any more than that and she would have bright red skin and the pain and peeling to go with it. Jayne took advantage of the distraction to start her own conversation with Anna. They talked easily about kids and husbands. It became clear Jayne and Adam were well off. Comments about her house cleaner, private schools, and a trip to Costa Rica earlier in the summer spelled that out. Anna on the other hand had saved to take a trip to Sacramento to visit her cousin. But rich or poor the sleepless nights and chaotic days of a mom are very similar and they spoke for quite a while. The afternoon passed and soon it was time to throw the chicken on the grill. The game had finished and Michael emerged to help, while he waited for the next game to begin.
“I have to take advantage of Gabe's excellent entertainment set up,” he justified his obsession. Adam laid a sleeping Ryan on the patio recliner. He went inside to the kitchen to talk to Gabe. “I hope you're not actually interested in Anna,” Adam said bluntly. “Why?” Gabe drew out the word skeptically. “I know you've always been on the conservative side of politics, but she is completely wrong about so many things and I think she's prejudice,” Adam stated matter of factly. His friend's assessment of her surprised Gabe. Those were some pretty harsh accusations. Gabe started to defend her and considered maybe his friends had discovered something he hadn't. Gabe and Anna had been talking and keeping in touch via text, calls and email for almost three months, but that is not a substitute for real life interaction. He thought about everything he didn't actually know about her and wondered if any of it mattered as much as the topic at hand. Adam started to recount the previous discussion. They had spoken about education reforms and challenges facing lower income neighborhoods and families. “She had the audacity to say it is not an issue of money, but rather a systemic failure in community culture. She basically stated that the culture is creating its own poverty and lack of education. She's completely racist.” Gabe knew his friend well and so he asked, “Are you interpreting her comments or did she really say that?” “It's what she meant,” Adam countered. Gabe nodded and made a mental note to ask Anna about it later. Adam had a tendency to take any deviation from his own
political viewpoint as prejudice against the disadvantaged. “I gathered you aren't actually dating her or I doubt you would have allowed Matt to monopolize her like he did today,” Adam added, “I wouldn't get any ideas about her if I were you.” Gabe knew Adam was actually trying to be a protective, helpful friend and he nodded in agreement. His two cents given, Adam went back outside. A few minutes later Anna entered the kitchen to see if she could help. She walked into the modern rustic kitchen and Michael passed by her carrying a plate of chicken outside. Gabe stood at the island mixing a pasta salad. Rana stood draped over Gabe, there was no other word to describe it. She obviously vyied for his attention and he seemed to be struggling within himself whether or not to give in. Anna felt her chest tighten as she watched them, admiring how good looking they both were and wondering if they had actually ever dated. Gabe looked up from the wooden mixing bowl to meet Anna's gaze. His eyes widened slightly and he took a half step away from Rana. He couldn't really move much farther away and keep the bowl on the counter. “Would you please go see if Matt needs any seasoning?” Gabe directed his request to Rana. She gave him a suspicious look, but walked out of the kitchen. “I'm glad to get a chance to talk to you,” Gabe directed to Anna. “I haven't seen you all day more than to say 'hello.'” “You've been busy with the kids and I've been getting to know your friends,” Anna responded. “Adam has quite an opinion of you,” Gabe hinted. “Was any of it good?” she questioned dubiously. “Not really, although I've heard worse from him,” Gabe
answered, grasping at a way to repeat Adam's harsh opinion in a less offensive manner. “He definitely loves to argue,” Gabe admitted, “and he always has facts to back up his positions.” “We certainly didn’t see eye to eye on anything. It’s difficult to converse when he’s obviously so much more intellectual than I am. I can’t remember my name half the time, let alone obscure facts from history, even though I minored in History at school.” Her attempt at lightheartedness fell a little flat as Gabe studied her responses for a hint of what Adam saw. “My position that we are all equal because we are all children of God, falls a little flat when he doesn’t believe in a deity,” she added almost apologetically. Gabe smiled at her words, “He can’t ever argue against religious belief because it isn’t logical. He has to measure it or count it or it doesn’t exist. Adam doesn’t understand how a person can believe all people are equal if we are born so obviously unequal in talents and abilities. No wonder he didn’t approve of you. Don’t worry.  He’ll warm up once he sees if you mean what you say.” Suddenly the emotional and intellectual exhaustion caught up with her and she spaced out for a second forgetting her offer to help with the food. Interrupting her thoughts Gabe suggested, “The first inning should be starting right about now, why don’t you go in and sit down. Michael won’t say anything to you and you can veg out for a few minutes.” She nodded and slowly left the room, but instead of the game she walked out to see what the boys were doing. They were still in the pool splashing and throwing a ball around with the other kids. Anna found some shade, but as she sat down Chris sent a large splash of water at her. Sean followed his example thoroughly
soaking the front of her shirt. “I will avenge thee, me lady,” Matt announced with a bow in her direction and he jumped in the pool. He swam over to Sean and pretended to drown him. Chris came to his friend’s defense and was dunked as well.  Ryan, who had since woken up, wanted to be in the middle of the fun, but Matt pushed him toward the shallow end and told him he was too young to be playing rough with the big boys. Tears filled his small eyes and he fought against his protruding bottom lip. Anna walked to the pool steps, modestly stripped down to her suit, and got into the shallow end with him. She pushed him down in the water but because of his life vest he sprang right back up, launching a little way into the air. For him, this new game entertained and delighted much better than the battle of the big boys. Jayne came outside carrying a glazed blue bowl of potatoes, followed by Gabe holding a large platter of buttered corn. The table set and the children persuaded to leave the water, everything appeared in order to start eating. Anna wrapped a large towel around her waist, then helped dish up a plate for Ryan and Tyler and situated all the kids at a small picnic table of their own. The older children served themselves and then the adults were able to select their food and sat outside under the umbrella to enjoy. The conversation flowed and the group began to discuss the trip they were planning for Thanksgiving. They painted a picture of idyllic Aruba and were all familiar with the ins and outs of life there. Only Gabe would be missing out because he would be with his family at his Tahoe cabin like usual. In his plans the slopes were calling, but imagining the cold, soft snow felt nearly impossible with
the warm sun shining all around them. For Anna's benefit, they progressed into stories of how each of them met. Gabe and Matt were boyhood friends having spent years getting into trouble together. Jayne and Adam met Gabe at the University. Adam and Gabe were in the same fraternity. Jayne had been in several of Gabe's classes, since they had the same major, and she and Adam hit it off the first time they were introduced. Gabe had actually brought her to a party as his date, but she and Adam were so perfect for each other they had started dating the next week. Michael was Gabe's investment accountant and their boys regularly got together to hang out and play. Gradually, the stories turned to college football and then World Series contenders. Gabe became impressed by Anna’s knowledge of the baseball season. Her favorite team, the Dodgers, could always be counted on to start a losing streak at the worst possible time. Being closer to Orange County, she was also a fan of the Angels, unless of course they ever played against the Dodgers. By the time the adults finished eating, the children played off somewhere in the yard. Gabe gathered an armful of food and dishes and headed into the house. Anna filled her arms and followed him. Matt jumped up to help as well, which made Adam snort at his obvious attempts to impress, but Anna didn’t hear him. Gabe smiled as he saw Anna walk around the corner, her arms full. He grabbed dishes out of her hands so she could set down the rest. He touched her arm and stopped her from putting the mayonnaise in the fridge. “You have a few flower petals in your hair, from the tree on the patio,” he informed her and reached to brush them out of her bangs. She closed her eyes as the petals fell in front of her face.  At
that moment Matt came in carrying a few items. He stopped dead watching Gabe and Anna. Matt's emotions inflamed at the two of them, standing there, inches apart, Gabe's hand in her hair, and her eyes closed, waiting. Matt spent the afternoon making his move, but it seemed obvious she was already taken. Frustration multiplied because Gabe had not told him he was interested in Anna. He felt like an idiot, spending the whole afternoon flirting, when she was already involved. Gabe saw the flash of jealousy in Matt’s eyes and, at first, wasn’t sure where it came from. Only a second passed before he figured out Matt thought Gabe and Anna were more than friends. Gabe quickly pulled his hand away and stepped back until he crashed against the counter behind him. Matt steeled his gaze toward Gabe for a moment, but then focused on Anna with a wide smile. As far as Matt was concerned, the competition was on. Gabe remained on the sidelines while Matt stepped close to Anna and engaged her in conversation. Gabe had been watching Matt put the moves on girls and women since they were boys. It was usually hilarious. He pulled out all the stops this time. Matt rattled on about his career, his second house in Brazil, and a few of his more famous friends. She listened dutifully impressed, but wondered what Gabe thought of the name dropping. She didn't understand how Matt expected her to be impressed by all the “important” people he mentioned when they were in the home of a genuine movie and TV star who had been his friend for years. She figured famous people are people too, well most of them. A call from outside drew Anna’s attention away. “Mom, where are my dry clothes?” Chris called to her and
she moved toward the door, excusing herself.  Outside she grabbed her bag and fished through it for Chris’ clothes, then slipped her shorts on over her now dry suit. Gabe watched Anna close the door and then slowly turned back to clean up the kitchen. He met Matt who had a conspiring grin on his face. “So, you and Anna?” Matt asked. “She’s not as hot as most of the women you have dated but she’s not bad.” Red faced, Gabe responded quickly, “It’s not like that. She’s honestly a friend. It hasn’t gone beyond that.” “But you want it to,” Matt was not asking. “No, I like her, but our sons are friends. She’s a friend and nothing more,” Gabe tried to convince him. “Then you don’t mind if I ask her out,” again Matt was making a statement, tempting Gabe to disagree with him. “I…I don’t mind if you ask her,” Gabe stuttered, “but she’s not the kind of woman you can play around with. I don’t want her hurt and I don't want you to do anything that will make her uncomfortable around us.” “I am always a gentleman,” he smirked. “Besides you’re right, she’s different. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something about her I want to figure out,” Matt added in a moment of sincerity. Anna returned with the last of the items from off the table outside and Matt immediately grabbed them out of her arms, nearly tossing the dishes in the sink. Gabe started to feel like a third wheel and made an excuse to leave when Matt suggested going to see a play his friend starred in. Wow, he hates the theater, he must really like her to be willing to sit through that. Anna misunderstood Matt’s intention and turned to Gabe,
“That sounds great. We should pick a night we can all go.” Turning back to Matt she asked, “Is it something that would be appropriate for the boys?” Gabe nearly spit out the water he had just sipped when he looked at Matt’s expression, the  complete disbelief that Anna had just invited other people along on what Matt had intended as a date. Anna still seemed oblivious to Matt’s discomfort and watched Gabe, now choking into the sink. She stepped toward Gabe to pat him on the back. Once he recovered, Anna rinsed out a sponge and stepped back outside to wipe off the table. “Pick a night that works and let me know,” she called over her shoulder. Matt watched her disappear unsure what to do next. Gabe clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder and reassured him. “I bet you anything she wasn’t turning you down, she just never considered the fact you were trying to ask her out.” He laughed at his friend and turned to the sink to fill it with soapy water.  Gabe threw a dish towel at his friend, “All right, Don Juan, make yourself useful and dry these.” An hour later, Anna dragged a whining Chris out to the car. He had school the next day. Rana and Adam both shook Anna’s hand good-bye. Michael, still engrossed in the television, didn’t notice anything. Jayne half embraced Anna and Matt did the same. He felt more confident when he felt her hug him back. He kissed her cheek and she blushed. She hadn’t brought up the idea of the theater again and Matt let it drop still trying to determine if she was really interested in him or just leading him on. One by one the guests left until just Matt remained.
“I have to get Sean in the shower and he’s still in that preteen, avoid bathing at all costs stage,” Gabe announced while searching the house for his son. Gabe found him hiding on the couch in the tv room. Sean complained when his father told him to get in the shower, but walked into his bathroom. Gabe waited until he heard Sean get undressed and the water start to run.  With Gabe busy in the other room, Matt decided he needed to be proactive about Anna. Spotting Gabe’s phone on the table he scrolled to her number and copied it into his contact list. He called to Gabe down the hall that he was leaving and he’d see him at their basketball game on Thursday. Standing in the hallway outside Sean’s room, Gabe wondered why Matt’s attitude bothered him. Can I trust him? He never does anything hurtful with the women he dates, he is just so persuasive they sometimes regret it or get so fed up with him, they leave. I have commitment fears, he just avoids it like Sean avoids showers, he’ll never grow up. Although, maybe he’s right and Anna is different enough to change him. She certainly put me in my place when she thought I was out of line. He walked back down the hall to double check on Sean. He laughed to himself as he opened the bathroom door, saw an empty shower with the water running. Sean sat on the toilet, already in his pajamas, playing a video game. Sean looked up at his dad with the look of a man resigned to his fate. He started to remove his clothes and actually get into the streaming water.
Chapter 6
“Saturday night? A baseball game with three of the most gorgeous bachelors in Southern California?  I think I can manage that,” Anna answered Gabe’s invitation. “I get home from working about 5:30p. We can drive up then.” “How about we come and get you guys that way we can feed the boys before we get there?” Gabe suggested. “And with the Deluxe Box tickets we can park in the back lot, closer to the entrance.” “Great, we’ll see you then,” Anna skipped a step after she hung up. Her phone rang again, but she didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?” she answered. “Hi,” she recognized the voice but couldn’t place it, “This is Matt, Gabe’s friend from last week?” “Hi, how are you,” she responded politely. “Great, I hope you don’t mind, I stole your number out of Gabe’s phone,” he laughed hoping she would be impressed with his
efforts to contact her. She paused a second then shrugged it off, “Of, course not. How can I help you?” She wondered why he called. “I just really enjoyed talking with you and I wanted to make sure you weren’t too put off by Adam that you wouldn’t like any of Gabe’s friends?” Matt tried to put her at ease. “No, I think his bark is probably worse than his bite. If Gabe is willing to ignore his opinion of me, then I can too. I think he’s actually just too intelligent for his own good,” Anna tried to remain positive, still unsure of Matt’s motives for calling. “Are you working now?” Matt asked, trying to find a way to get her to open up and talk freely like she had before. “Yes, just finishing an organizing appointment. I’ve got to drop off the donations and trash and then head home to finish a sewing job,” She rattled off her list of to do’s.  “You take away their donations and trash?” He asked skeptically. “I make sure to haul it away. Too many times if I leave it for them to do, they will fish back through things and half of it ends up back in the house I just spent days cleaning up,” She smiled as she talked, letting him know it wasn’t as bad as it sounded, but still ridiculous that people would pay her to do work for them that they would turn right around and undo. “Wow, maybe you’ll have to come over and help me get straightened out,” Matt added with a little too much charm. Unfazed, Anna responded, “You probably have a bachelor’s apartment with the least amount of everything possible, except over sized televisions and take out containers. Matt laughed off her suggestion, knowing it hit a little too close to home. “I’m not as bad as that. I actually have a very nice
home, but yes, it definitely lacks a woman’s touch.” Anna started to understand that maybe Matt called for more than just a chat. It usually took being hit with an 18 wheeler truck for her to begin to guess a guy was interested. Suddenly she felt flattered that he went to the effort to call, but confused if Gabe gave him her number or if Matt really got it without his knowledge. She wasn’t sure which was worse. She didn’t want Gabe giving out her number, but Matt going behind his back did not impress her. She gave him the benefit of the doubt and continued the conversation. “Well, I have the number of a few designers, if you ever want some help,” she willing played along, but she did not promise more than she was willing to deliver. “Actually, you could give them to me if you wanted to go out to dinner Wednesday,” he said. She kicked herself for walking right into that one. She didn't mind him asking her out, but she didn’t like to be manipulated into anything. She was too much of a control freak. “Yes, it would be nice,” she agreed, “but not on a school night.” “You’re still in school?” he teased. “Thankfully, no, but there is homework and sixth grade takes a lot of getting used to for a boy who hates homework,” she explained. “Saturday’s are best. But not this Saturday,” she added quickly remembering the previous conversation with Gabe. “Sorry, to be so difficult, it’s just the life of a single mom. Next Saturday would be perfect,” she suggested. “Does that work for you?” “No, I really don’t want to wait so long to see you again, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice.” She could tell he was teasing again
and her heart beat a little faster at his boldness. “Patience is a virtue,” she teased back. “I’ll have to get some. I’ll add it to my grocery list,” he laughed now. Abruptly he added, “I need to go, but next Saturday, 9pm, you’re all mine.” “Nine?” she was confused, hadn’t he said dinner? “Nine’s good, unless you need to make it later,” he commented accommodatingly. “Uh, no, nine is fine. See you then, bye,” she hung up the phone wondering what she had gotten herself into and how she will stay awake through dinner. The life of a single mom is often less than glamorous. She dropped her phone in her purse and dropped Matt from her thoughts as she drove to pick up Chris from his friend’s house.
Saturday afternoon Gabe loaded Sean in the car and headed south toward Long Beach. He found himself thinking about things he wanted to talk to Anna about, articles he read that morning and the Dodgers chances in the playoffs. All summer they had continued talking and texting, sharing small moments through the day. Often when he read a piece of news or heard a funny story he wanted to share it with her. She was becoming like the female version of Matt, someone he turned to when he wanted a second opinion or wanted to offer his. Sean interrupted Gabe's thoughts to explain his latest attempts at Pokemon domination. Gabe’s focus centered on Sean for the rest of the 40 min drive. Anna's car wasn’t in the driveway when he pulled in front of the small, well kept home Anna and Chris rented. It really impressed him she did so well as a single mom trying to be home with her son as much as possible.
Chris stood in the gate, struggling to get his bike through, while it shut on him. Sean jumped out and ran to help, then the two of them disappeared inside. Gabe walked to the front door and stood there for a few minutes waiting for the boys to come let him in. It became apparent they had completely forgotten about him, so he rang the doorbell. A sheepish Chris answered the door, apologized, and held open the door. Sean sat, already on the computer, talking about the latest challenge on his game. Chris returned to the couch to continue their conversation. Gabe interrupted them. “Chris, dude, no offense but you stink,” he said with a smile fanning the air around him. “Why don’t you go clean up a bit while we wait for your mom?” “Yeh, we were running around a lot and I’m pretty sweaty. Do I have to get in the shower?” Chris asked tentatively. “I think you should, and get some clean clothes,” Gabe added. He walked to the kitchen and got the small red tomato timer and set it for 5 minutes. He knew the tendency of boys to drag their feet to get in, but then never want to get out. “You have 5 minutes, so wash quickly.” Chris ran off to get his clothes and headed into the bathroom, resetting the timer for the full 5 minutes. Gabe waited a few minutes and then knocked on the door and asked Chris if he knew when his mom would be home. Chris’ voice came muffled through the water so Gabe knew he had actually gotten in. Sometimes you have to be smarter than the average bear to raise kids.
It surprised Anna how much she looked forward to the game. Since their explosive visit to the Aquarium she and Gabe had become real friends. She wasn’t surprised anymore to receive a text message or email from Gabe and Sean and Chris constantly asked to hang out together. At 5:15pm she dropped off a load of boxes at the thrift store near her home. Anna tried to support the store. They raise funds to help out abused parents so they can finish school and establish careers. Anna maneuvered toward home mentally planning what needed to be done before they could leave. Hopefully, she could work in a shower and clean clothes before Gabe and Sean arrived.  Chris would ride his bike home from a birthday party and would need to change and grab his Dodgers cap. Anna turned the corner and saw Gabe’s car in front of her house. Her heart sank a little that she wasn’t going to have time enough to be able to get ready. She walked in the house carrying an armful of organizing and cleaning supplies. Gabe and Sean sat on the couch, but Chris was no where to be seen. “Is Chris home?” she asked Gabe. “No, we randomly broke into your house because we had a huge desire to sit here on your couch and stare at your walls,” Gabe’s sarcasm dripped heavily. “If I had known you were so interested in my walls I would have touched up the paint for you,” she threw right back at him. “So you’ll know for next time.” Gabe threw her a sarcastic look. “Chris is actually in the bathroom washing up and changing. He was pretty sweaty.” Just then Chris walked out and before Anna could even say hello Gabe asked “Did you remember deodorant?” Chris hung his head and silently turned around and walked back in the bathroom. For a second Anna felt a little uncomfortable
with someone else telling her son what to do in her own home. Then she realized she should be grateful for someone else to reinforce what she tried to teach him. It felt nice to have someone else be the adult. She smiled at him appreciatively. “I’m going to take a quick second to clean up too. I’ve been hefting boxes and dusty clothes and things all day. But it should just take me a couple minutes,” she explained to Gabe, hoping he wasn’t in too much of a hurry. “No problem, How about I take these bottomless pits out to get burgers and we’ll be back in a few minutes?” Gabe offered. Anna nodded and then headed to her room to get clean clothes. She heard them leave and she quickly jumped in the shower. They hadn’t returned yet when she finished and dressed so she added a little make up and earrings. Make up and jewelry were nice but not essential to her and usually only applied in the car as she drove somewhere. She heard the door and walked out to meet them. “Wow, you clean up well,” Gabe joked, “and fast. I figured we’d be back, eaten, and waiting.” “Well, when you are as naturally beautiful as I am…” she flipped her hair behind her and smiled a horribly cheesy grin. “Actually, all the make up and hair supplies in the world don’t do much, so I don’t bother.” He assured her it was definitely not true. She was closer with her first comment. She’s not gorgeous like the women I work with, but she is so natural and happy that she really is beautiful. Out loud Gabe said, “Let’s get going then,” and they piled in the car. The drive to the ballpark took about 45 minutes and when
he pulled up to the gate of the parking lot he showed the attendant his tickets. The attendant slipped a bright salmon colored piece of paper under the windshield wiper and directed them to drive around to the farthest lot. Anna had never been back there; she usually ended up parking with the masses in a lot which spread down the hill. The nearest entrance was located behind third base and they stopped to get sodas, water, and popcorn for the boys who were already hungry again. Instead of climbing up to the nosebleed seats where Anna usually sat, they snaked around down to the boxes behind home plate. As they sat down she was surprised by how close they were. “Wow, we can actually see faces on the people,” she joked to Gabe who gratefully realized, once again,all the opportunities he took for granted. “The players don’t usually have faces?” Sean asked confused. “Where we usually sit is so far away, you can’t see anything more than the numbers on the jerseys to identify people,” Anna explained. She’s not bitter about it, she says it as though it’s matter of fact. “Why would you sit there?” Sean asked innocently. “Because season tickets for these seats would cost more than my house,” Anna laughed kindly. “Not everyone is lucky enough to be as spoiled rotten as you,” she teased, wrapping her arms around him, throwing him gently side to side. “Oh,” he responded, suddenly understanding, “We are pretty lucky. Aren’t we, dad?” “It’s not just being lucky. Your dad works hard for what he
earns. He has to be away from you most days while he’s filming and he’s lost a lot of privacy,” she told Sean. Gabe looked at her admiringly. Then she jabbed Gabe in the ribs, “For a Pretty Boy Actor that is,” she added with a smirk. Gabe admired her levelheadedness when it came to wealth and money. She didn’t sound resentful like so many people. He knew he had advantages in life others did not, but he also worked very hard. He had taken jobs he didn’t like and roles he hadn’t wanted because a job is a job and the more you are out there the more of the right kind of opportunities come your way. No one is going to hire a nobody in this business. The Announcer started, the National Anthem sung, without too much over singing this time,  the first pitch thrown out and the game began. It was the last home game of the regular season and the Dodgers were on a 7 game winning streak, so the seats were pretty full. It threw Anna off a little sitting down so low and behind the plate. She almost preferred the birds-eye-view of the cheap seats. She focused hard to determine where the ball was going and whether it was fair or foul from that vantage. It did give a better view of close plays at the bases. She could see the umpire had made a lousy call at third, which she wouldn’t have been able to notice sitting elsewhere. Almost two hours later, the fifth inning was half way over and the boys were a little antsy. Gabe took them to get refills and walk to the memorabilia shop to get some of their energy out. Gabe was stopped by a guy he had met on one of his visits to troops over seas. He didn’t remember the man, he had met so many over there, but he stopped to talk with him.
He made sure the boys shook his hand and they all took a picture together. He even signed his hat. Gabe shook the man’s hand again and thanked him for his service before saying good bye and walking toward their seats.  Sean teased his dad, “Maybe I should get your autograph on my hat, just in case I’m poor one day and need to sell it.” Gabe tussled Sean’s hair and told him he could have his autograph on his emancipation papers when he made Sean live in the field behind the house. He then had to explain the meaning of Emancipation and that is what they were discussing when they returned to their seats. “Gabe is going to emancipate Sean, so he will be poor and then he can sell his autograph to pay for food,” Chris blurted out to his mom in explanation of their strange conversation. Anna laughed silently and looked at Gabe with a questioning glance, as if he was crazy. He just smiled back and confirmed, “Yep, as soon as we get home, boot to the gutter, baby. You’re out on your own.” Sean, obviously unruffled by his dad’s announcement, rolled his eyes and sat back in his seat. The sixth inning had started and the score board showed pictures of couples surrounded by a heart and the words “Kiss Cam” beneath their faces. The camera stayed on the couple until they gave in and kissed. First a young couple, then an older couple, then the former soldier Gabe had just spoken to. Finally the background changed and the words “Major Kiss Cam” appeared on the screen and Gabe realized the camera pointed at him. “Major” was in reference to his most successful movie character. Anna was so focused on the game she didn't see it until the crowd let out a cheer.
She searched the stadium, confused, wondering why everyone reacted. Just then Gabe bumped her elbow and pointed at the Score Board. He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek before she had even figured out what was going on. Maybe that will satisfy them. The crowd let out a boo. “Don’t worry about it,” he whispered in her ear. She had finally figured out what he was saying. Gabe saw her eyes open wide in surprise and she looked around at all the people in the stadium. She’s probably horrified. She was actually considering what his fans would think if they didn’t kiss, or if they did. Afraid they would think he was too stuck on himself to play along, she started to formulate a plan. Unsure how it would go over, she debated within herself. She glanced at the boys and they both had a look of horror on their faces, as though their parents had been asked to eat cockroaches. For twelve year old boys, eating bugs might be considered cool, this was much worse. She only took half second to finalize what she should do and she turned smiling toward Gabe. She shocked him when she faced him, removed his hat and covered the side of her face with it. He deduced her plan as she leaned toward him and he bent his head to hers happy to play along with the ruse. His heart jumped a little and warmth spread through his chest as her lips touched his briefly. He started to close his eyes, but she quickly pulled away. Her lips are fuller and softer than they look.  She had planned to only hide behind the hat, make it look like a kiss, but not actually touch him. She wondered what had made her go through with it.
Maybe it was the fact that he leaned in close to her. Maybe, the realization that the fans sitting behind them would be able to see they hadn't actually kissed. Maybe, the last minute whiff of his Cologne which made her heart melt, or maybe, she really did want to kiss him.  Shaking herself mentally for her desires, she mumbled out loud almost hoping he wouldn't hear her. “The fans behind us would have been able to see it unless we actually kissed. That's why I did it.”  Anna looked him in the eye, smiled and then looked away toward the game. “Go Dodgers,” she cheered loudly, but on the next pitch the batter grounded out. She turned to look at the boys and they were staring back as if she’d grown three heads. “Ewww, Mom, you kissed him?” Chris said incredulously. “On the mouth,” Sean put in, “in public.” As if she’d just kissed a bubonic pig. “Well, they were expecting it,” she waved her hand at the stands. Then, she raised her eyebrow, “You two are just jealous.” She made an exaggerated pucker and kissed Chris twice on the cheek. Then, she added loud smacking kissing noises and pawed at Sean. She grabbed him and got in a kiss on the forehead and another on the cheek by his ear as he squirmed. She noticed that Sean complained and squirmed but didn’t move away. Anna paused momentarily, pondering that Sean probably missed having a mom around to kiss and tease him.  She stole one last kiss from Chris, pinned between Sean and her, and released them both. Chris exaggeratedly wiped his hand on his face and then wiped it again on her jeans. “Aw, Man, now I’m jealous. I only got one kiss, you guys are so lucky,” Gabe joked. Anna glanced at him and knew she was
forgiven for the kiss. He leaned over and whispered, “You’re hat stunt guarantees it will appear on the sports reels. Every gossip outlet is going to be trying to figure out who you are.” Her face dropped, apologetically she stammered, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t thinking about it. I  just tried to get them to stop but not have pictures out there.” She leaned forward to rest her head in her hands. “It’s not a problem, Anna,” He assured her, “Any good media is free advertising, right? I think it’s kind of funny. I’m so used to it, it’s second nature, but there isn’t any way you could really have known.” She peered between her fingers at him and she only raised her head once to assure herself he was being honest. “You’re a lot of trouble, but Sean likes you, so I guess we’ll let you guys hang around with us,” Gabe smiled, put his arm around her shoulders and shook her gently in a mock hug. The next two innings passed quickly and the top of the ninth ended in a double play which continued the winning streak. They gathered their trash and followed the crowd toward the exit. As they approached the parking lot gate, Gabe looked at the people around them and spoke to the parking attendant who nodded at him. Instead of following the line of cars through the small exit off the VIP parking, Gabe circled back and went out the entrance. Past the attendant who waved at him, he drove into the throng of cars leaving the other lots through the narrow streets in the hills. “If anyone tried to follow us, they’ll have gotten lost in the crowds,” Gabe explained as he turned onto the main road and headed for Anna’s house. The boys were lost in a conversation about their latest
gaming adventures. Anna and Gabe were content to listen to the music on the radio, talking from time to time, but relaxing in the silence as well. Soon they arrived at her house and Gabe jumped from the car to open their doors and walk them to the porch. Chris waved good night and headed inside. “Thank you for inviting us,” he said when his mom grabbed his arm and turned him back around to face Gabe. She let him go in. “Yes, thank you. It was a lot of fun,” she echoed. “Sorry about the whole kiss cam,” he interrupted. “I’ve had worse things happen to me than having to kiss a cute guy at a baseball game,” she winked and laughed. He smiled back, said good night, and walked back to the car. She waved before walking into the house, hoping that with any luck Armageddon would start so the gossip shows have something else to focus on. Just for added protection she got on the computer and shot out a post that she was not actually dating anyone; the whole thing was for publicity; please do not share her name or contact information with anyone.
Chapter 7
Saturday evening Anna dressed for her date with Matt. She didn't know what they were doing so she put on a fitted skirt, her good blouse, and a pair of medium heels. She took extra time with her hair and makeup, then, went in to finish making popcorn for Chris and her fifteen year old niece who was spending the night to keep Chris company. At 9:20 pm, Matt still hadn't arrived. She had decided to get up and call him, when he rang the doorbell. She invited him in and he was a little surprised she was already ready to leave. “No wonder you’re friends with Gabe, he’s always on time too,” Matt said. “I’m never on time, but I’ve had an extra twenty minutes to get things done,” she responded sweetly hiding the annoyance in her voice. She said good bye to Chris and Leena and followed Matt out to the car. He had a BMW sports car. The car sat so low, she had to pull down her skirt as she sank in.
He told her the name of the restaurant where he made reservations, she smiled and responded that it would be nice.  She hadn’t ever heard of the restaurant before and Matt seemed slightly put off that she didn't get more excited.  She asked him what type of food they served. “Oh, you haven’t been there before?” he questioned rather relieved it was from ignorance and not from lack of approval. “If it doesn’t have a kids menu, I haven’t been there,” she joked and he smiled acceptingly. “It has to be difficult being a mom all the time. Don’t you ever just want to cut loose and go party?” he asked. “I miss dancing. I used to go to dances every weekend as a teenager and young adult. Now days the only dancing I get to do is to the grocery store musak and it’s mainly aimed at embarrassing my son,” she laughed. “Now that he’s older I take him with me most places. We hike and camp and he endures my furniture remodeling habit.” “Furniture remodeling?” he questioned A little embarrassed she confessed how she is one of those people that goes around neighborhoods collecting furniture left on the curb. “If it’s solid wood furniture I can re-stain it or repair and paint it.  Then I turn around and sell them. It gets out some of my creative energy and since it’s free except for the paint and my time, I can earn a small profit.” Matt launched into a story about an acquaintance who owned a boutique which sold furniture and collectibles. Anna tried to follow along and smile and nod at all the right places as he dropped names she didn’t know but he seemed to think she should. This led to another story about an estate auction and chaos that
ensued there. He was very entertaining, even if she didn’t know the places or people he spoke about. She could see he was charming and it would be so easy to get swept away in just having fun with him. She felt rather boring in comparison. She shared a few related tales.  None of which were nearly as glamorous, but almost as entertaining, she hoped. Once they reached the restaurant, Anna could see why Matt had been disappointed she wasn't familiar with it. The valet was mandatory and small white Christmas tree lights lit the walkway through a Japanese garden. Romantic and expensive would be an enormous understatement. Matt, attentive, opened the door for her as they walked in. The Maitre 'd confirmed their table would be ready in a few minutes. Anna looked at her watch, surprised how quickly they had driven there, deducing that he must not worry all that much about speeding tickets. After 10 minutes Matt started to get antsy and made a few remarks about having a reservation and being seated soon. Anna, unsure if he appeared concerned because he thought she was put out or because it actually bothered him, tried to be cheery and show it didn’t matter to her. She  enjoyed herself. A large party walked in and Anna recognized a singer and her husband among them. “Oh, that’s why we’re waiting. They had someone more important than us to prepare for,” Matt explained with just a hint of resentment in his voice. “As long as they leave enough food for us, I’m fine,” Anna replied smiling. They were finally seated and Anna had quite a time deciding what to order. The food was delicious but not nearly worth what
Matt paid for it. The view was worth a million dollars though. As they finished eating Matt pointed out the tables he needed to visit and say hello. He walked over to a table with three men and a woman and introduced her to them. Another table with an older couple spent a few minutes chatting with them. Finally, two women at the bar were invited to meet up with them later at a dance club. Anna smiled at the idea of going dancing, acknowledging he had listened well to her comments earlier. He made a phone call to tell someone they were headed to a club tonight. He was super charming and gave an estimated arrival of 20 minutes. Apparently, it surprised the person on the other end they would arrive so early. The valet brought his car to them and they headed toward the club. Anna was not actually all that familiar with the city of Los Angeles. She grew up in the suburbs but hadn’t been in the city for anything other than morning visits to the fabric district in several years. They drove down one way streets and a small alley and she lost her bearings quickly.  She noticed a long line down the sidewalk in an area where she felt uncomfortable getting out of the car. She cleared her thoughts about the neighborhood, assuming Matt wouldn't have brought her there if it weren't relatively safe. Matt pulled into a space and turned off the car. Anna glanced at her watch and realized it was 12:30am. She stifled a yawn, excited to get inside. As they walked down toward the entrance, Anna noticed the many young women, dressed in very clingy and scanty clothing, bedecked in plentiful jewelry and make up. Most of them were exceedingly attractive. She felt incredibly plain and poorly dressed comparatively.
The bouncer at the door recognized Matt and they walked right in. The noise and lights immediately assaulted Anna. Hundreds of bodies filled the club and the walls reverberated with the beat of the music. Matt directed her toward the bar and ordered a shot then turned to ask her what she drinks. She asked for just a coke. He looked at her quizzically and, for a split second, disappointed. “I don't drink,” she offered in explanation. “I never have. That way I don't ever have to worry about not remembering it the next morning.” She tried to sound casual as she laughed at her own comment. Drinks in hand, they headed for a less crowded corner of the room before dancing. Matt offered to get them a table, but as a teenager Anna had learned to always keep her drink in her hand. Dangerous things can mysteriously happen to glasses left unattended. Anna didn't know the song, most of the songs, but she liked the beat and adapted her dance style accordingly. She reveled in the freedom of losing herself to the rhythm of the music. Matt was a good dancer, but after a few minutes, several women approached them to say hello to Matt. He greeted each one with a hug and kiss and introduced them to Anna. Only one of the women seemed happy to meet her and she couldn't put her finger on it, but the whole thing made her nervous. Within a half hour a few guys were sitting at a table and invited Matt to join them. Anna followed, but it became clear this was a guys only thing, so she excused herself to go to the ladies room. “You can leave your glass here, you don't have to take it to the bathroom,” Matt suggested. Anna looked at her glass, took a large sip and set it down. Nearly empty, she didn't need to drink the rest. She turned toward
the restroom and wove her way through the bodies across the dance floor. In the light of the women's room she checked her phone. Seeing the display show a quarter of two already surprised her. She wondered how much later Matt planned on staying. She took a few extra minutes to fix her hair and reapply makeup, not in any hurry to return to the loud pounding sound. When she did return Matt greeted her sarcastically, “I thought you fell in.” The shorter blond man sitting next to him added, “No, she just got herself prettied up for you.” “The girls are dancing,” another man sitting across from Matt informed her as he nodded in the direction of the dance floor. Her options were to butt in at the table with the men or join the group of women dancing together. “Here, I ordered you another,” Matt shoved a glass in her hand indicating she should take it with her to dance. “I'm not thirsty right now, maybe after I've danced for a while,” she put the glass back on the table and walked toward the dancing crowd. She approached the circle of women she had been introduced to and waited for someone to acknowledge her. A few of them noticed her but no one said anything or invited her to join them. Even the one woman who seemed friendly when they were introduced, didn't say anything. She finally just decided to ignore them and danced by herself. Two different men asked her to dance and after a half hour she decided to return to Matt. He had asked her on the date, either he should spend time with her now or she just wanted to get home. She had a real life to wake up to tomorrow morning, or more
correctly later that morning.  Matt saw her coming and once again handed her the glass of soda. “I'm alright,” she said, “I wasn't dancing that hard. Are you going to come out there or just sit here with the guys?” She challenged him, hoping it would motivate him to make a decision. He stood up from the table, took her hand and directed her back toward the women. They opened their circle for him and he pulled her along. He began to dance facing her, but it became clear the other women were distracting. Several of them actually grabbed his arm and turned him their way. Anna moved slightly allowing them to edge their way in front of him. A petite dark haired woman whispered, “Don't be so jealous. Around here we share.” Anna gave her a surprised look and then turned back to look at Matt who smiled at a tall red head. Not the competitive type, Anna stayed on the outside of the group, she wasn't going to blatantly show off for his attention. Matt looked at her from time to time and she pretended to be having fun. One glance he caught her yawning. She tried to hide it, but he looked at his watch, put his arm around her and suggested it was time to go home. She nodded gratefully. Matt said his excuses to the women, then walked back to the table to say good bye. She waved casually as he returned and guided her through the throng to the door.   Anna took a deep breath of night air when they reached the outside., glad to be free of the claustrophobic crowd. It struck her as funny how she had enjoyed going out and dancing in clubs when she was younger. She had to admit now, no longer in her teens and twenties, she wanted to actually dance with her date.
The quiet walk, periodically interrupted by sounds throughout the city, made Anna wonder more than once if they were safe in the area so late. Nothing happened and they headed toward her home. “I'm sorry I'm such an old mom,” Anna said to break the silence, “I can't remember the last time I stayed out this late.” “Maybe you need to do it more often,” Matt suggested, “take a little time for yourself and have some fun. You are a woman after all, not just a servant to your kid.” Anna let out a stifled laughed at his comment. “You won't understand unless you have a child yourself. You kind of give up part of your life. Taking time for myself is one thing, letting it take over my life is another. “ “I think it's just an excuse to not live. You get comfortable in your rut and don't make an effort to branch out and be a woman again.” Matt's insight hit a chord with her and she admitted a small bit of truth contained in his words. He talked about his usual weekend activities and shared about each of the friends she had met at the club. One of the women, Meghan, has a daughter and two of the men, James and Devon, have kids too and they didn't let it stop them from having a good time. Quickly they arrived at her house and Matt pulled into her driveway. He jumped out and opened her door then walked her to the porch. “I had a nice time with you tonight,” he said, “Especially the time at dinner. I enjoyed talking to you away from the tumult of yelling kids and people around us.” She smiled and agreed dinner was great. She thanked him for everything, “I would never have gotten the chance to eat in such
a wonderful place. And I really enjoy dancing. Thank you for taking me.” She turned slightly to unlock the door when he slid his hand around her waist. Anna looked up at him surprised. He met her gaze for a moment and then looked down at her mouth. He slipped his fingers into her hair and pulled her close. His head bent toward hers and he kissed her passionately, barely waiting for her to respond. She tried to return his emotion, but instead caught herself worrying if she was a good enough kisser. Matt obviously had plenty of experience with different women. While Anna had dated quite a bit she had always been more reserved. She debated needing to move her lips more or less, maybe wrapping her arms around his neck would make it better. In this very romantic moment, she knew she should be able to relax instead of stressing over her performance. Instead, she considered his well defined shoulder and neck underneath her hand and admitted to herself that he is definitely well built and attractive.  Anna felt almost relieved when he pulled his head back and looked at her again. “Could we go inside?” he asked with a jerk of his head. Unsure exactly what he was asking, she responded with her first excuse, “The kids are sleeping.” “Even better,” he answered bending down to kiss her on the neck. His intentions dawned on her and she stiffened slightly stepping back. She relaxed again in his arms, not wanting him to feel rejected, but with more distance between them. “My niece will be asleep in my bed so I don't think it's possible.” Slipping farther out of his arms, she countered his next suggestion, “I don't think I could possibly relax thinking about either
of them walking into the living room.” He took a deep breath and released her from his grasp. He kissed her briefly and agreed that maybe tonight is not the best night. “I'll have to plan another dinner, some other weekend. Maybe Chris can sleep at Gabe's house.” Anna smiled but didn't answer, hoping to avoid committing herself. She said good night, opened the door, and with a smile, shut it tight. She leaned against the door, closed her eyes. Breathing deeply, she fought the urge to let her eyes fill, completely frustrated at herself. Pushing it out of her mind, she walked swiftly into her room, changed her clothes and marched to the bathroom to get ready for bed.
Chapter 8
The alarm went off way too early Sunday morning and Anna literally wiped the crust from her eyes so she could pry them open. She noticed the empty other side of the bed. Leena had already gotten up and dressed for church. She was watching tv in the living room. When Leena heard Anna's alarm sound, she walked back into the bedroom. “Can we make pancakes?” Leena asked. Anna nodded, eyes still closed, agreeing pancakes were a great idea if the she and Chris were willing to make it themselves. Anna swung her feet out of bed and groped her way, stumbling into the bathroom. The heat of the shower woke her up a little more, but not until she stood in front of her closet deciding what to put on did she actually opened her eyes completely. She managed to get dressed, only having to re-button her blouse once. She grabbed a pair of shoes off the bottom shelf of her closet and walked still barefoot to the living room. The smell of breakfast came wafting toward her when she walked out of her
room. The kids were in the kitchen setting the table and pulling condiments out of the cupboard and fridge. Anna sat down and wondered how Chris and Leena could be so awake. She was sure they had stayed up late too, just not as late as she did. Some food and water helped pull her the rest of the way into consciousness. The pancakes were delicious and she was grateful for children who were old enough not only to fend for themselves, but take care of her too. They finished off the stack of pancakes and most of the orange juice. It was nearly time to go. Chris went in to put his shoes on and finish combing his hair. The drive to Sunday morning services passed quickly and they walked inside with five minutes to spare. Anna focused on each of the speakers and the time passed enjoyably. After the main services, Anna walked to the Sunday School class. She struggled to stay awake near the end of the class. This wouldn't have been a problem except she was the teacher. She continued yawning and then, apologizing. Eventually, classes ended and Anna, Leena, and Chris headed home. “Gabe and Sean are coming over to our house today,” she reminded them.  “We're going to picnic on the beach this afternoon since the weather is so beautiful.” Gabe's car waited for them as they pulled into the driveway. Sean jumped out of the car, already in his swim suit. Gabe arrived at her car door before Anna had climbed out. She seemed to be moving through mud today, everything took longer than usual. She swung her feet out the door and Gabe began to laugh. “Did you really go to church that way?” he asked, suppressing a chuckle. “Yes, what's wrong?” Anna started examining her clothes and face in the reflection of the car to see the issue.
“Look at your feet,” he paused, “Which color shoes were you trying to wear?” Anna focused enough to notice one foot was dark blue and the other brown. She owned two of the same pair of shoes and did not pay attention to the color when she put them on. She flushed with embarrassment, “I stood there in front of the whole class with mismatched shoes.” Then a little upset, “In three hours of church, no one mentioned it.” “I guess footwear is not the reason they are there.” To soothe her feelings he added, “Maybe that's a compliment they were paying attention to what you were saying and not your feet.” She smiled slightly and explained her exhaustion and the shoe confusion. Gabe laughed at her, but then concerned he asked if she was too tired to go to the beach. “I'm willing to take the kids myself if you're not up to it,” he offered. She shook her head No, “I think I can manage sitting on the sand and watching the water. Maybe a few waves will wake me up.” “Well, other than the shoe thing, you look very nice. Do you always dress up this way for church?” he inquired. She is beautiful. “Every week,” she thought it strange he had never seen her dressed up before. In all those months, they had always changed first and then gone to his house. The beach was not too crowded since visitors rarely came after Labor Day. Only local families were there to take advantage of the October heat and the waves. The kids ran down to the water with their boogie boards flying behind them, held by the leashes like a kite. Anna had applied sun screen to them before they left the
house, so the boys left a trail of stripped shirts and flip flops from the sand to the water line. Leena carefully piled her clothes on top of her sandals, so they wouldn't get too sandy, and placed her towel on top of the clothes. She followed the boys into the sparkling surf. Gabe and Anna carried the bag of snacks, chairs, and the umbrella as well as their own towels and boards. After arranging their stuff, they collecting the items the boys had dropped too near the water, risking losing them to the sea. It would serve them right for the tide to take their shoes, but I don't want to have to buy another pair. Gabe grabbed both boogie boards and tagged Anna on the shoulder. “You're it,” he yelled and took off running toward the water. Always competitive, she took off after him. She didn't reach him until he had already arrived knee deep in water and she shrieked as the cold water hit her legs. “Well, you're awake now,” he splashed her from a wave and took off deeper into the water, ignoring how cold he felt himself. She took her time after that, waiting to adjust before venturing in deeper. Eventually she caught up with him and he handed her the board. He scanned the waves to count children; one, two, and after a glance toward the shore, three.  They took a few waves and Gabe walked back out when he asked her joking, “So, why are you so tired? Hot date?” She didn't answer right away and looked away from him. He stared at her not sure why she didn't go along with the joke. “I...I did have a date last night and was up way too late,” she confessed. Suddenly considering that she should have told him about it, she blurted,  “I went out with Matt.” Matt? “My friend Matt?” he asked astounded. If she had
dumped cold water over his head he would have been less surprised. “When did he ask you out?” “He called last week, but I was busy and so we planned it for last night,” she explained. “Are you upset I didn't tell you before? He is your friend and all, I wouldn't want to get in between friends.” “No, I'm just surprised. Matt asked me about you, but I didn't think he had moved on it,” Gabe replied. “He made it sound like he didn't have your number.” He refused to allow himself to wonder how it went. “Well, he took my number from your phone. I think he thought it would impress me that he had gone to extraordinary measures to get a hold of me, but I feel he was a little dishonest not asking you for it.” She waited for him to ask how the date went before offering any details. Anger flashed across his face. “I'm sorry, I would have asked you first before giving him your number. He's a little conniving, but I never imagined he would do something like that.” He didn't pay attention to a wave crashing into him, knocking his feet out from underneath him. She had noticed the rising swell just before it hit and had been able to jump over it. She shouted to him to look out but the wave got to him before he heard her. Gabe surfaced as Anna glanced around at the children to count heads before turning back to him. He spit out the salt water and wiped it from his eyes looking around to see if she had been caught off guard too. She looked at him and the questions hung there unasked and unanswered. How did it go? Will she see him again? We keep having these uncomfortable moments.   “Maybe we should go drown some children; I think we've
left them unbothered for far too long,” she smiled and moved her head in their direction. They swam over and pretended to attack each of the kids. Gabe tried to lift each one and throw them in the waves. Finally, he admitted he was not the young man his mind imagined himself to be and the kids were no longer small children. Lifting 100lbs over his head repeatedly wore him out. Anna stifled an enormous yawn, turning away from the others in order to hide it. Finally, she admitted it was time for her to take a break and she trudged through the water and sand up to their chairs. She opened the large umbrella, leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She assured herself Gabe wouldn't let anyone drown. She drifted off. A small tickle ran down Anna's cheek and she brushed it away. When she felt it again, she turned her face toward the nuisance and saw a tall shadow blocking the sun glowing through her closed eye lids. Without even opening her eyes she threatened, “I will hog tie with sea weed whoever is interrupting my nap.” She attempted a growl, but the hint of laughter hid below her tone. “I think I might like to see you try,” came the deep voice and she smiled eyes still closed. “You're right, I couldn't get you, but I could get your son, hog tie him and hold him for ransom until you let me sleep.” She teased, understanding the irony that losing a small amount of rest barely compared to the exertion required to fulfill her threat. “Good thing I let them all drown so you can't hold him over me,” Gabe teased back. “You'll have to break the news to your sister.”
She finally pried her eyes open to see him standing over her blocking the sun's reflection where the umbrella didn't cover.  Sitting up she watched the kids climbing up the sand hill, dragging their boards behind them. “We’re hungry, mom.” Chris stated. Leena and Sean nodded their agreement. Anna reached for her bag filled with carrots, cookies, and water bottles. She divided them out and offered a cookie to Gabe. “Thanks, I’m sure my figure won’t be damaged too much by eating a few dozen of these,” he extended his stomach to appear fatter and then patted it in appreciation. Out of the corner of her eye a flash of sunlight caught Anna’s attention. A man down the beach had his cell phone pointed at them obviously filming. She told Gabe and motioned her eyes toward the man. “Just ignore him, it will be easier if you do,” Gabe told her quietly. “How do you handle it so well?” she asked, “Doesn’t it bother you when people take pictures and film you when Sean is around?” “Unfortunately, that’s the price I pay. I come into their homes on tv and movies, they feel like they know me and most of them don’t even consider what they do an intrusion,” he answered her, still whispering so the kids didn’t overhear. “I guess I’ve never understood the attraction of fame or the famous. You aren’t any different than any other guy out there. You’re a dad, a son, a friend; you’re just like anyone else,” she felt obviously frustrated. “And what makes them think it’s OK to film me and the kids?” she asked shaking her head. “You’re right, but that won’t change anything. We can leave
if you want, if it makes you too uncomfortable,” he offered. “I don’t want to spoil the day for the kids. Let’s see if they are ready to go or if they want to stay,” she smiled at the boys trying to shake sand from their towels and Leena with the towel already wrapped around her. “Are you guys tired out or do you just want a little rest before heading back out there?” Gabe kept his voice cheerful. He met with silence, no one wanted to be the first to answer. “OK then, I think we should spend at least 2 or 3 more hours here,” he jumped ready to run back down to the water. “Dad, I’m tired,” Sean confessed. Leena and Chris agreed. They were all ready to go, but wanted to collect a few shells before they left. Since Anna was already dry, she offered to carry the chairs and umbrella to the car. When she returned they could walk down the beach and look for shells. She picked up as much as she could carry and started the trudge across the sand. The sand burned hot on her feet and she moved as quickly as possible. The idea of someone recording her in a bathing suit made her very uncomfortable. How many women would want a picture like that saved for all time on the internet? She piled the armful of paraphernalia in the cargo area of the car and shut the trunk. She locked it and climbed over the small wall dividing the parking lot from the sand when a man approached her. He questioned if she spent the day there with Gabe Josephs. He had a phone in his hand pointed at her face. “I’m sorry,” she tried to wave him off, “we’re here with the kids and would appreciate if you didn’t video them.” “I’m not doing any harm,” the man responded, “Doesn’t
Gabe want pictures of him being a good dad? It’s good for his image and good for his career. I moderate his largest fan site and I will be sure to post these for the rest of his fans to see.” Her stomach dropped, she looked toward the children and sighed, “Just please be discrete. I don’t want the kids to be bothered. They are enjoying their day.” “I would think they would want to be in the video and famous too, if enough people see it,” he began to be insulted that she wasn’t thrilled by his dedication to Gabe’s fan page. “Thank you for your understanding,” she cut him off and walked back to the group. As she approached them, she grabbed Chris’ hand and said, “Come on, let’s go find those shells.” Gabe noticed the man speaking to her and gave her a sideways glance. She smiled back at him to assure him she was fine. Chris let go of her hand and ran off to search the sand for treasures to add to his collection. Leena found the first beauty and showed it off. The boys each found one quickly and soon the bag Anna had brought for just such a purpose was tied in three parts and filling up quickly. Gabe caught up to Anna and held her hand so she had to slow down and talk to him about her conversation with the man with the phone. “Are you alright?” he asked and Anna nodded. “What did he say to you?” “He just asked me if I was here with you. I asked him to please not record the kids and he got offended that I didn’t want them in the video. He said they should be excited to be part of the fan page. I finally just told him, ‘thank you for your understanding’ and walked away.”
A while later everyone was ready to head back to the car. Gabe noticed the man and close up recognized him. “I’m going to go talk to him, just to make sure he’s ok and not upset.” Anna raised an eyebrow to question why he worried about that. “I recognize him. He's been to several events and follows me on all the social sites. He keeps my largest fan page. I don’t need any negative posts right now.” Trying to emphasize the importance of maintaining a good relationship, he added, “The network would not be happy with a lead of one of their star shows labeled as stuck up or not fan friendly. Like it or not, I need that guy’s good graces.” “There is so much more to being an actor than I thought. I don’t know how you do it. I’m glad to just be a regular person,” she spouted her opinion before thinking how he might take it. “I think it’s a small price to pay for not having to be in an office all day. I could never be an executive or banker or something. I would go stark raving mad,” his tone came out more forceful than he intended. “I didn’t mean to insult you or demean what you do. It’s just so foreign to me, and most of the time you seem so normal I forget about your ‘day job’,” she countered. “I never considered all the effort it takes to create popularity and fame.” “It’s part of my life. My friends and family have to understand and I need them to be supportive of it, not just tolerate it. I need you to accept there will hopefully always be those who ask for my time. If it ever gets to the point where they don’t, my career is over,” his voice soft, but assertive. “Will you come with me and apologize?” he extended his hand to her. “Apologize? Apologize to him for interfering in our day? For recording us without our permission and when we didn’t want it?
Apologize??” The answer slipped out furiously. Then, she noticed the look in his eyes pleading. She stopped herself to actually process what he said. He asked her to make this one concession as his friend. How could she refuse? She handed the car keys to Chris and told him they would be at the car in a minute. “You’re not the only one that can act, Pretty Boy,” she teased; as she smiled and took his hand, they walked over to the man. 'Pretty boy actor' was becoming her pet name for him. An hour later, they were at her home. Sean finished up in the shower and Gabe waited his turn, hoping some hot water remained. While Chris and Leena debated which movie to watch after their meal, Anna dropped the spaghetti into the pan of boiling water. It was a quick and simple dinner. She tried to ignore the itch of sand she hadn’t been able to wash off yet. When Sean walked out she gathered up the dirty towels and swim suits off the bathroom floor. She headed for the washer explaining over her shoulder to Gabe, “I’ll get yours too if you just leave them in there when you’re done.” The timer sounded and she rushed back to the kitchen to take the garlic bread out of the oven and drain the water from the pasta. By the time she had the table set, Gabe finished. Glancing around at what more could be done, he opened the fridge in search of Parmesan cheese. He called to Sean to grab the chair from Anna's desk so they would have enough places to sit. He motioned the kids around the table. They prayed over the food, and Anna left them to eat while she used up the last of the warm water. The little bit of heat relaxed her and exhaustion crept over
her again. Only as she exited the shower, did it dawn on her she had forgotten to bring clean clothes with her into the bathroom. Wrapping a towel tightly around her, she streaked into the hall. Her mildly sunburned face turned dark red as she glanced toward the kitchen and locked eyes with Gabe. His eyes ran down her towel wrapped body and he quickly turned his view out the window instead. Gratefully, she slunk the rest of the way to the privacy of her room. Out the window, a small bird flew from a tree out by the street to a larger tree in front of the neighbor’s house. It’s funny my heart started racing when I saw her. With a towel draped around her, she’s more covered up than she’s been all afternoon. But the image of her standing there, looking sheepishly, flashed in his mind again. He found himself humming a children’s bible song to keep his thoughts in line.  They were still eating when Anna walked in. Dressed now in her pajamas, a worn t-shirt and light cotton shorts, she sat down to eat. Chris, Sean, and Leena debated the movie they had chosen. Anna avoided Gabe’s fleeting glances, neither one willing to admit what the other was thinking. Anna felt so tired she only dished herself a small amount and finished quickly. The dishes were loaded in the dishwasher and the movie started. Kids piled on oversized pillows on the floor, but Anna and Gabe sat on opposite ends of the couch. The intro had barely started when Gabe stood up suddenly and walked into the bathroom. He returned with a large bottle of green goo and a large glass of water. Chills ran up her leg as Gabe grabbed it and began to spread the aloe vera mixture on her lightly pink skin. Even reapplying
sunscreen hadn’t saved her from slight sunburn. She closed her eyes and relaxed as the cool gel calmed her warm skin. Gabe dumped a small amount in her hand and instructed her to rub it on her face and neck. She gladly complied. He dumped more aloe vera in her hand to rub on each arm. Once finished, the only thing left was her back. She laid there hoping he wouldn't mention it, but he suggested she would feel better if he covered her back too. She sat up slowly and turned away from him, facing the front door. She tried to ignore the goose bumps up her arms as she held down the front of her shirt while he lifted the back to apply the gel. Now awake enough, she asked Chris, Sean, and Leena if they were sunburned at all. The boys had both worn shirts all day and Leena’s Hispanic blood from her dad’s side made her tan rather than burn. All three applied aloe to their faces and necks which had been exposed to the most sun. Turning to Gabe she realized he had removed his shirt so she could spread it on his back. The smell of the green gel kept her mind on her task and she did not let it wander across the soft skin under her fingertips. Gabe assured himself the rapid heart rate and shallow breathing were caused by the coolness of the aloe and not her touch across his bare shoulders. With the aloe vera dutifully applied, Gabe replaced his shirt and leaned against the back on the couch. He focused on the television, but the exertion caught up with him and his eyes closed. A little over an hour later, he awoke to the streams of the closing credits. He slumped on the soft cushions. Anna must have drifted off as well, because she lay tucked under his arm, her right hand on his chest. He didn’t want to wake her, it felt comfortable relaxing
there. He noticed the time and decided he would have to disturb her in order to get Sean home at a decent hour. School came early the next morning. He slowly removed her hand and tried to lay her down on the couch as he vacated it, but she woke from the movement. He watched her wipe the corner of her mouth and he checked his shirt for drool. Groggily, she asked where the kids had gone, but he had to confess he didn’t know. Voices coming from Chris’ room confirmed where they should start the search. Disappointed groans greeted them as they opened the bedroom door. Leena needed to go home as well, so they were all headed out the front door a few minutes later. They said good bye and Gabe moved to place a quick kiss on Anna’s cheek. He stopped millimeters away remembering the green chemicals which had been liberally applied earlier. “As tasty as aloe vera is, I’ll pass,” he joked, pulling away from her cheek. Instead he tilted down slightly and kissed her lips. It was so quick, she couldn’t react. She muttered good bye in return and moved sleepily toward her car to drive Leena home.
Chapter 9
Chris ran up to the wooden front door and rang the bell. Sean must have been waiting right inside because it opened almost instantly. Without even talking Chris handed him an envelope and Sean tore into it. He waved the invitation to Chris’ party in the air to unfold it. The enclosed message needed decoding and the boys ran off to get a pencil to write down the translation.           (Your mission, should you choose to accept it is to attend Chris’ birthday party. You will be trained as an undercover ninja and
finally given a mission to rescue the birthday cake and ice cream from enemies of the state. If you accept join us at our house on November 15 at 4pm.) Anna walked into the tv room where Gabe sat on the couch entranced in a football game. She quietly grabbed a pillow off a side chair, snuck up behind him and pummeled him with it. She totally caught him off guard but he quickly recovered. He grabbed her arms and pulled her over the back of the couch. She shouted in surprise and a little fearful as to what Gabe’s retribution would entail. Gabe moved his hand to her ribs and tickled her slightly. She let out a yelp and squirmed to escape. He felt her shift and tried to catch her before she crashed off the couch and onto the half eaten bowl of ice cream he had set on the terracotta tile. She screamed again as cold, half-melted ice cream spilled through her shirt onto her back. Gabe peeled himself off the couch and standing above her, reached to help her. He bent again to grab the now empty bowl from the floor as Anna headed for the kitchen to wash her shirt off in the sink. Gabe followed her, entering just in time to see her twisting and reaching behind her in an attempt to get the water on her back, but not become completely soaked in the process. He set the bowl on the island with a clink and walked over to help her. He reached around her grabbing the extra fabric and holding it up to the stream of water coming from the faucet. Once rinsed, Gabe twisted her shirt to wring out the water. He grabbed a red dish towel off the quartz counter and tucked it behind her to absorb the remaining water.  Not until he was holding it onto her back, did he realized exactly how close he stood with his arms wrapped around her. He slipped the towel into her hand and quickly stepped away.
“You’re all clean,” he announced as he backed into the island and grabbed a wet rag to clean up the mess on the tv room floor. She watched his discomfort, unsure if she should be offended or laugh. She followed him out of the kitchen, her damp shirt clung to her back. He wiped up the green, mint chip mess with the towel. The wet rag took care of the remaining sugar on the wood floor. When he had finished he tossed it in the washer in the laundry room. He came back, sat on the couch and moved over to the far side to allow her plenty of room. Anna sat on the couch curled at the other end, unsure why he acted so awkward and tense, but she didn’t say anything. Gabe wasn’t sure why but he suddenly wanted to avoid her. He focused on the game, trying to stop thinking about her even though she sat 2 feet away. The silence dragged on and for the first time both of them were uncomfortable. Sean and Chris came running in once Sean had deciphered the party invitation. He handed it to his dad who read it over and started asking questions about the party and what Chris and Anna had planned. This broke the tension and their normal relaxed manner returned. Anna had arranged with several of her neighbors to hide dessert toppings in their various  yards around the neighborhood. The kids would have to follow clues, running from street to street and house to house to find their rewards and then return back to her house to enjoy birthday cake and ice cream sundaes. The next hour was spent creating clues for the various hidden items the kids would need to find.  They were also going to have an obstacle course where the kids would “train” in preparation for their hunt. The four of them
threw ideas back and forth, planning out the best and most fun events, as well as, the prizes for each. Chris and Sean tired of the details and ran outside to practice their “amazing ninja skills” in preparation for the party games. A new football game was underway and Gabe grabbed two sodas and a bowl of popcorn. They were rooting for opposite teams so the teasing and taunting lasted the whole game. Anna’s team won and she celebrated by dancing around the room.  Her celebration ended as she headed toward the bathroom. Gabe laughed at her and sent a well aimed throw pillow flying across the room into her back as she danced away. He went into the kitchen to turn the oven on for dinner. Rather than the barbeque they normally enjoyed on Sundays, he had actually prepared oven baked chicken and sweet potato fries. The evening passed quickly and soon it was time for Chris and Anna to go home. They said good bye and Gabe hugged Anna before she walked out the door and kissed her cheek. She responded warmly. Gabe often hugged and kissed his friends good bye, but his initial meetings with Anna were so tumultuous it hadn’t been a part of their friendship. He wondered though at his sudden desire for more than a quick kiss good-bye. I would never let anything happen to mess up Sean’s friendship and dating Chris’ mom would definitely mess that up. No relationship has ever worked out for me and they never seem to end positively. Anna is simply not an option.
Chris’ birthday was a clear Southern California morning, a little brisk but Anna knew it would quickly turn warm. She busily baked cupcakes and cleaned the house in anticipation of 14 rambunctious children and their assorted parents.
Making a mental list she told herself the patio still needs sweeping and then she would start on the balloons. The doorbell rang and she sighed, not wanting the interruption into her plan. She heard Chris open the front door. “Sean!” Chris called from the living room and then ran to find his mom to inform her Gabe and Sean had arrived. Anna, very surprised, walked in the living room, wondering why they had arrived so early.  Gabe didn’t appear apologetic at all for the unexpected arrival. He simply grabbed the broom from her hand and directed Chris and Sean outside to start blowing up balloons. He walked right past her with a short “hello” and started sweeping the patio as though it had all been prearranged. She does so much by herself. She is so independent. I bet it’s killing her to let me waltz in and do this for her. It makes it even more fun to know she doesn’t expect it. Gabe watched her turn and head to the kitchen to answer the timer and pull the cupcakes from the oven. He finished cleaning up and marched over to the pile of multicolored balloons the boys had inflated. One by one the round balloons were tied onto the banner. With each boy standing on a straight back kitchen chair, they strung them along the front of the garage and the side of the house. The helium filled ones were set in the middle of each round table and at the various event areas. Once she turned off the oven, Anna left the cupcakes to cool and then she went in to clean the bathroom.  She fought the urge to overreact to his assumption that she needed his help. 'Control Freak' was a term she often used to remind herself to let go and allow others to assist. She ignored the idea that he felt she couldn't handle it and was there to save the day.
Knowing his tendency to pitch in, she reminded herself that it was characteristic of him to show he cared. But, she thought, he was probably enjoying her frustration. Determined not to give him the satisfaction of seeing her sweat, she would say nothing, play along, and enjoy someone else doing the work. Anna went outside determined not to acknowledge his attempt to discomfort her. She stopped short when she saw all they had accomplished in such a short time. Gabe watched her face and knew he impressed her with the effort. It made him feel good to know she appreciated what he wanted to do for her. He turned and got the boys busy throwing tissue paper streamers across the yard. They attached them to fence posts and tossed them over tree branches then tied them to the patio cover. She focused on attaching the decorated poster boards to the chairs scattered around the yard, so the kids would know how to follow the training course. Then, she arranged obstacles for them to conquer along the path. An hour later the front door opened, followed by a loud knocking and a shout “Hello, hello” as Anna’s sister, Emi, walked in with her husband and daughters. Anna called to them to come to the backyard.  Leena and her sister stepped out onto the patio shortly followed by her mom. Gabe paused to introduce Sean and himself to her family. A few minutes later Anna's parents, Bob and Mary, came walking in the yard. The kids now jumping on the trampoline and the adults talking muffled their arrival. Mary brought cake decorating tips and frosting bags. The boys and men were put in charge of the base frosting while Anna, her sister, and mom focused on the details. Sean picked up the bag of black frosting wanting to learn how to draw with the small round
tip and create the designs on the cupcakes. After a little practice he did pretty well and he was put in charge of adding masks to each ninja face. Gabe stood in the kitchen mixing the two pitchers of blue and orange kool-aid when the guests started to arrive. He decided to hide out until most of the children were dropped off. He didn’t want to add any chaos to the event. Anna’s sister, Rachel, came in to find a platter for veggies and stopped dead when she saw him, her mouth slightly open until she recovered. He waited for her to react, but she calmly introduced herself, explained her mission and left the room. “He’s even cuter in person,” he heard her say to someone who giggled and the two of them walked back outside. He heard Anna shouting over the chattering children trying to explain what was going to happen and how they could follow the course. She handed out ninja masks. Gabe hurried outside to set the kool-aid on the table and then take up his post at the hamster ball run. The large plastic ball was made up of inflated sections. The children would climb inside and roll themselves around the grass area, hopefully avoiding crashing into the fence and other people. The few younger children would need help, while the older kids would need to be reminded to not lose control. The mayhem started and Gabe got his work out pushing the ball around, saving individuals and other obstacles from being run over as children rolled amok. Anna ran back and forth fetching things for the adults who were helping all while tending a station of her own. After every child had passed through each station the clue hunt began. The older kids solved the puzzle and with Chris leading
the way took off running down the street. Anna hadn’t thought through how she would keep up with the running kids and bring up the slower smaller children behind them. Gabe suddenly sped up behind her, scooping up her young niece and a friend's little boy, one under each arm. He took off running to catch up and Anna was now free to dash ahead. Place to place they collected ice cream toppings, candles, and the lighter for the candles. Finally, with all the necessary items found, they ran back to the house to sing Happy Birthday and enjoy the treats. The cupcakes and ice cream were quickly devoured and the children’s interest moved on to opening gifts. Chris opened each one and politely thanked each person. The whole group squealed in delight when he opened the large Lego set. The box containing the radio control helicopter from Sean was torn open and before she knew it Gabe had to climb on the roof to fetch the helicopter gone rogue. Parents arrived one by one to collect their kids and the noise and energy level decreased as each child departed. Anna's sister, Rachel, and her girls; Anna's parents and Gabe and Sean stayed, helping to clean up.  Slowly the trash bags filled and the dishes loaded in the dishwasher. Anna wanted the balloons left up because they were so cheery and decorative, but the streamers and posters were all thrown away. Leena carried gifts into Chris’ room and Chris and Sean swept up the loose bits of paper and popped balloons which covered the yard. Rachel and her husband James, who had arrived during the melee, swept and vacuumed the main room. Finally, the adults collapsed in the living room and the kids went into Chris’ room to enjoy his new toys.  The afternoon ended eventually and Anna's family left. Rachel offered to pick up Chinese
food, but Gabe waved her off and saying he would return in a few minutes with dinner. James took Tanner home to start dinner. Rachel sat with Anna to talk for a few minutes more. “Honestly, I thought you were exaggerating when you talked about how much time you’ve been spending with Gabe and Sean,” Rachel confided. Anna pretended to be shocked, “Me, exaggerate? Never! Only a hundred million times a day!” She confessed that it still seemed weird to her to have a famous friend, but unless they were out in public where people fussed over him, she usually forgot what he did for a living. It wasn’t part of his personality on a regular basis. To her, he was just a friend and fellow single parent. “Emphasis on single!” Rachel responded, “He is so good looking and totally nice. How is he still single?” “He is gorgeous,” she admitted, “and he’s surrounded by equally gorgeous women all day on the show. I haven’t figured out why he hasn’t been snatched up at least once.” “He spent an awful lot of time here helping you, I noticed,” Rachel hinted. “He wouldn’t ever be interested in me. Like I said, he’s surrounded by drop dead good looking women all day. He could have any of them, I’m sure,” Anna waved off Rachel’s knowing look. “You underestimate yourself, Anna. You’re attractive,” Anna started to protest Rachel’s comment, so she added, “True, you’re not movie star good looking, but the outside package is not the only thing that attracts a man, especially a man who has been single so long. He’s probably looking for a good partner, not the hottest, shiniest, young thing.” “It’s been five months. Don’t you think if he was interested
he would have done something about it by now?”  Anna retorted. “It’s been five months. Don’t you think if you were interested you would have done something about it by now?” Rachel mimicked her. Anna made a sarcastic face and changed the subject. Rachel left before Gabe returned with Thai food. Anna had changed into comfortable cut off sweats and a loose t-shirt. The boys chose a movie and they all sat on the living room rug around the coffee table to eat. Food eaten and bellies full, Anna and Gabe picked up the dishes to load them in the dishwasher. The extra food was arranged in the refrigerator and finally Anna let out a loud sigh and rolled her head to remove the exhaustion from her neck. Gabe turned her around and rubbed her shoulders for a few seconds. He stopped abruptly and she turned to look at him. He had a distant look again. “Thank you,” she said sincerely, “I don’t know what I would have done without you today. You were running around with the kids and playing games. When I needed them to move on to another activity you corralled them. Decorating and cleaning up and dinner tonight,” she counted out the things he had done on her fingers. “I really appreciate it all.” He shrugged off her compliment and thanks, “Your family pitched in too,” he said. She shook her head No, “They helped, but the kids had a good time with you. Acting silly and playing around is not exactly their forte.” She just wanted to give him a hug, a proper thank you. She stepped close to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. It took him a second to realize she was only hugging him. Gabe wondered why he felt slightly disappointed.
He responded by wrapping his arms around her and his hands on her back but after a few seconds she hadn’t released him. He fought himself at first, but then surrendered, holding her tightly. She buried her face in his shoulder while he laid his cheek on her head. Her hair smelled faintly of…vinegar? She's been using natural products again? For a moment Gabe told himself he should let go, but he ignored it and held onto her. Anna wanted to back away, but the warm feeling of being this close to him tempted her. She did resist the urge to look at him, afraid he would read what she was really thinking.  Finally, mutually, they pulled apart, feeling a little uneasy. Anna interrupted the silence, “Thanks again.” She took a deep breath, “We should probably go back in and finish the movie.” She moved her head in the direction of the television. Gabe simply nodded. For a brief moment Gabe remained dazed, he couldn’t think at all. He moved zombie like into the other room and sat on the couch. Anna stewed next to him, berating herself for following her emotions and holding on much longer than she meant to. Her intention to keep her hormones under control was taking a lot more energy than she realized.  She doesn’t seem bothered at all. What was that? I really didn’t want to let her go. I can’t have feelings for her; it just doesn’t work that way. I care about her too much to ruin it with attraction or emotions.  Sean and Chris decided to move off the floor and onto the couch, forcing Anna and Gabe to move closer together. Thirteen year old boys might be best friends, but sitting squished together is not cool so they each chose an arm, pushing their parents together in the middle.
Anna carefully tried to avoid touching Gabe as much possible. Gabe put his arm around Sean so he could lean away from her. Awkward silence hung between them. The movie ended. Over the protests of Chris and Sean their parents insisted it was time for the party to end. Anna hugged Sean good bye and automatically moved toward Gabe before freezing inches from him unsure what to do. A line from a popular television show about ten years earlier ran through her head, “I’m light and breezy.” She snorted trying to stop herself laughing out loud. Gabe stared at her assuming she had suddenly lost her mind. She confessed what had caused her snort and he recalled the show, he had seen it several times in reruns too. He laughed at her explanation, mainly because he felt like he needed to act “light and breezy” as well. Their tension evaporated with the laughter.  She hugged him sideways, as little contact as possible, and peck kissed him on the cheek. He returned the gesture and they said good bye. She walked back in the house emotions running through her head. Only sheer exhaustion would let her sleep tonight. Grateful for such a full day, she could shut down her brain and get some rest. Gabe still had a forty-five minute drive to sit and stew in his regrets while Sean drifted off. Arriving home, he woke his son, directed him in the house and into bed. A hot shower relieved Gabe's tired muscles after hours of pushing and lifting children and party items. Once in bed he tried to focus on his plans for the next day: church and then a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with his family. His sister, brother-in-law, and their kids would not able to travel up to the mountain cabin for the holiday. He drifted off to sleep disturbed by
dreams of snow covered mountains and long hikes alone, almost alone.
Chapter  10
After services the next day Gabe and Sean headed to his parents house. They were exiting the car when Uncle Jack and Aunt Jenny pulled up to the curb behind them. Gabe waited for his aunt and uncle while Sean knocked on the front door. Even with the time it had taken for Jack and Jenny to exit the car and walk up to the porch, no one had answered. Confused, Gabe opened the door and walked in, worried about his mom and dad. He walked into the den and stopped so suddenly Sean ran into him. There on the couch were his parents making out. He cleared his throat loudly to announce their presence. He chuckled when Sean peeked around him and announced, “ewww! Grandma! Grandpa! That’s gross. You’re way too old to be doing that!” Jack and Jenny laughed and Uncle Jack announced, “Hear that Jen? We’re too old to be kissing.” He took her in his arms and dipped her low and kissed her dramatically.
Gabe was used to it. His parents, and aunt and uncle, had always been very affectionate and he had many memories as a child of catching them kissing, holding hands, and being playful. He still tried not to think about his parents’ love life, but contrary to most childrens' protests, public displays of affection were some what comforting to him. Even after all those years his parents still loved each other and had a great friendship and marriage. They weren’t perfect, he also remembered some arguments through the years, but they were actually part of the reason he wasn’t married. How do I find a woman who I can love 45 years from now the same way my parents love each other? His sister “lucked out” he thought, but she would say she “made” her marriage like her parents’. It didn’t just come that way. She met her high school sweetheart at age 17. They were married five years later, the week after they graduated from college.  When others might grow apart, they chose to grow separately, but together. Each one made life choices, but they supported each other. After their son was born, she decided she didn’t want to go back to work. Curtis supported her. When he reached ten years with a large international company, he opted to leave Corporate America to start a small business. Rebecca encouraged him. Both choices changed their lives forever.  Either could have destroyed them, but they fought for each other together. Rebecca and Curtis would not be able to join them at the cabin for Thanksgiving so today became the pre-Thanksgiving dinner. He always had to have his store open and running for Black Friday, so they weren’t ever able to come up for the holiday. Jack and Jenny would be in Tahoe the next week, but Jenny loved Thanksgiving dinner so they agreed to come and share this one as
The smell of turkey filled the house when Rebecca and her husband walked in and their three kids arrived like a tornado. Gabe and Rebecca's parents complained about the noise, but truthfully they preferred it that way. The kids ran outside to find Sean already playing in the yard with the dogs on the trampoline. Curtis went into the kitchen to deliver the dishes filled with food to accompany the turkey. Gabe had never been the best cook and they always assigned him to bring a pumpkin and an apple pie, made from scratch by an elderly neighbor who loved him to death and thought he was just the cutest thing since puppies. Rebecca leaned over to her mom and asked in a whisper, “Are Anna and Chris coming today?” Rose shook her head No. “They are coming up to the cabin and her parents are coming too, but I'm not sure why he didn't invite them for this dinner. They are practically inseparable, but I'm not sure what exactly is going on between them. It's like they're dating, but they're not.” “I was hoping to meet her, maybe get out of her what is going on with him,” Rebecca hinted, “knowing him, that's exactly why she's not here.” She shrugged it off when Curtis returned asking what the two of them were gossiping about. A few minutes later Rose’s sister, Trudy, arrived.  She would be in Fiji for Thanksgiving with some old college girl friends and so this was her one chance at a real Thanksgiving.  Trudy always arrived in a whirlwind of energy and fun. She set down her famous sweet potato casserole on the stove to keep warm and then hugged everyone and kissed every cheek. Gabe and Sean received extra strong hugs, they were definitely her favorite.
Gabe imagined if Sean hadn’t come along he might have turned out very much like his favorite aunt.  Trudy immediately launched into her latest story of traveling to New York. She always met the most interesting people, people no one else ever seems to get to know. “Everybody has a story,” she often stated and would prove it over and over again when she told the stories of random men and women just living their lives. Today she related the account of a man she met on the street asking for change for the subway. He wasn’t quite homeless, but had a similar appearance. “His manner of speaking drew me in,” she explained. “He spoke well, with a touch of southern twang. He had been the president of a large real estate investment firm. When the housing market crashed, he lost everything. His wife left him and moved out of state without notice, taking the kids with her. He took what little he had left and had been traveling the country, following one lead after another searching for his children. “His last tip had been to New York. He had found a job in a small motel as repair man. His wife had been living with a friend in Manhattan. He located the school where the children attended and called the police. The authorities recovered the children and he went out to buy newer clean clothes in order to meet them. “His wife had been staying with one friend and then another, all of them wealthy. He feared his children would judge him if he showed up to see them in his worn out work clothes. He was left fifty-three cents short of what he needed for the subway to get home to wash and change and get to the police station. “Of course, I gave him all the cash I had on hand and asked if I could go with him to capture the reunion. He agreed and after cleaning himself up, we headed to see his kids. It had been nearly
three years. He had tears streaming down his face when the oldest of them, his daughter, ran to him. The youngest little girl had only been nine months old and his son had been four. The younger two were unsure, but followed their sister’s example and embraced him. I have rarely been witness to such a beautiful scene.” She continued telling his story. “Once a judge gave him custody, he was able to return home, even though they hadn’t found his wife. In the three years he had been gone, his business partner had rebuilt the company. He was welcomed with open arms. He will have to work hard to regain his wealth, but he is well on his way. Last he heard, his now-ex-wife lived in Argentina with man she met shortly after he left New York. She had mist in her eyes as she finished the end of his tale. “Someday I’ll write a book and publish my photos,” she daydreamed, “but I’m going to wait until all my friends are dead and gone so I don’t embarrass anyone with my version of circumstance.” She laughed at her own joke. “It will be a best seller for sure, Trudy,” Curtis remarked. “You keep us in stitches and tears every time we see you. Every heart seems to find a home around you.”  Most people would blush with such compliments, but Trudy, true to herself, took them in stride. She knew them to be true, not from arrogance, but simply self confidence. Another knock at the door announced the arrival of a cousin from his dad’s side. His two kids were quiet and reserved and Rebecca walked them outside to re-acquaint themselves with her kids. Rose left the guests and called Gabe to take the large bird from the oven. He left it on the stove to rest for a few minutes before Doug came in to carve. The rolls were heated and last minute touches added. The children were called in to wash hands and calm
down before dinner. At last, they all gathered around the large dining room table. They each chose something to share that they were grateful for. Rose felt, of course, grateful for her family around her. Curtis, thankfully, related things were going well at work. Sean shared about his new best friend, Chris, and his new Pokemon game. Gabe repeated he enjoyed good friends and a wonderful family and a new holiday movie he would be shooting after the first of the year, prepared to release next fall. The rest of the family congratulated him and the gratitude continued around the table. Dinner turned into a tumult of laughing and talking. Eventually, everyone ate their fill and then some. Curtis leaned back announcing that he practically needed to take off his pants because they no longer fit and everyone begged him to please restrain himself. Doug offered him a trash bag to put on instead.  The children were excused and ran off to use up the energy they had just consumed. The adults started carrying dishes and leftovers to the kitchen.  As he wiped down the stove, Trudy teased Gabe, “how’s my favorite ‘old maid’ nephew doing?” “Don't pout, you know I love that you have done your own thing.” She winked and added, “I think you and Sean should come join me in Fiji after Thanksgiving. All the girls would love to have you. You know they all think you’re HOT!” He laughed envisioning his aunt’s “girls.” The group of women in their late 60’s and 70’s and their misadventures were legendary. Gabe could only imagine what spending a weekend with them would entail. “If I spent the weekend with you all, I wouldn’t be able to sit for a week,” he laughed. “Those women are very grabby,” he teased.
“I just want to make sure you’re having enough fun. We spinsters have to stick together,” Trudy added. “Stop encouraging him, Aunt Trudy. We want him to get married! He just has to stop being so picky,” Rebecca declared. “He’s surrounded by beautiful women all the time, and yet, he hasn’t managed to decide on one.” The conversation quickly degraded into a debate on “Why Gabe isn’t married,” as it often did, and even Aunt Trudy chimed in with her belief about him. “He’s just a loner who loves spending time with women but can’t find one he wants to spend too much time with,” she added confidently. This theory reflected a little more about Trudy’s philosophy than Gabe’s. Curtis told everyone to leave him alone. “If Gabe is enjoying being a bachelor there is nothing wrong with that.” Winking at his wife and quickly kissing her, he added, “Married life is not all it’s cracked up to be. I’d like a few days now and then to be a bachelor myself.” Rebecca shot him a dirty look, before their cousin chimed in that Curtis was right. “Most women are just after your money so they can go shopping,” A recent divorce clouded his point of view too. “Besides, how do you trust they will be faithful? You never can tell who will do what when presented with the wrong opportunity.” Rebecca launched into a story about a couple who had been married for fifteen years and the wife started having an affair with the UPS guy. He used to arrive early for his shift and take his breaks at her house too. The neighbors finally got suspicious of the UPS truck parked on their street and one of the guys said something to the husband. They had seemed like the perfect couple.
“Don’t they always?” asked Rose.  “My friends always seemed perfect too, until the last few years. We weren’t surprised when they finally announced their divorce, but the steep decline of their relationship came unexpectedly.” “She always had to be right, always knew the ‘correct way’ to do something. He just got tired of fighting. It was the beginning of the end, when he quit fighting back,” Rose shared. “He started to notice other women, something he had not done for ten years. That’s when they went to counseling, but it was always ‘his problem’ and not hers, so eventually, he decided he was done.” Reflecting she added, “It’s sad really they couldn’t work it out. They had the best love story until the last two years.” Uncle Jack chimed in with a recent story about a husband who went on a business trip overseas. He returned a week later and announced he was leaving his wife and four kids to go live with some woman in Brazil. After that, everyone fell into their own thoughts about the sad state of marriage. Trudy broke the silence, “Seems like everyone is splitting up now days except you guys,” she directed her comment at Rose and Doug, Jack and Jenny, and Rebecca and Curtis.  “We’ve all had our challenges,” Rose piped up. “There’s not a one of us that hasn’t thought about calling it quits at one time or another.” Her husband, Doug, smiled at her. “The difference is when the hard times came, we turned to each other instead of apart. We were also both willing to listen and take our partners happiness into account.” She stood up ready to walk to the kitchen and prepare for dessert. “I thought this whole conversation was ganging up on Gabe? How did we get so far off topic?” Curtis joked. Rose walked behind Gabe’s chair and wrapped her arms
around her son’s neck. “Gabe is afraid of making a mistake and being stuck in a relationship which isn’t working. You can’t always know what someone else will do and depending on someone else for your happiness is scary.” She kissed him on the cheek and walked into the kitchen. Rebecca, Judy, and Jenny followed. Jack turned on the television to watch the NFL game and Curtis and Rob were immediately absorbed in it. Gabe sat stewing, trying to decide how upset he felt at his family for their interfering conversation. With the room now quiet, Doug leaned over to his son's chair and quietly started to talk. “I really lucked out marrying your mom.” he looked around to ensure no one was eavesdropping before continuing his confession. “Honestly, I married her because she was cute. Luckily, she still is. She was a little smarter. She married me because she said she could trust me.” He thought for a minute and then continued, “Somewhere is a woman you can trust with your heart and your son. When you find a friend you would trust to raise Sean if something happened to you, you’ll know you’ve found the right one.” Doug then returned his attention to the game and the offense running for a touchdown. The vision of a blonde, blue eyed woman came into his mind. He pushed the thought out and went outside to run around with the kids. He needed some physical distractions. Instead of finding Sean running around the yard with the rest of the kids he sat on the patio chair seemingly deep in thought. Sean starred off into space and didn’t even notice his dad approach until he stepped right in front of his face. “Boo!” Gabe interrupted Sean’s trance. Sean jumped and then smiled as he noticed his dad. “You’re just the person I wanted to talk to,” Sean said. Gabe
laughed out loud at his son’s serious, adult like approach. “Well, I called this meeting to discuss recent developments in our eastern Asia sector,” Gabe added in a boardroom tone of voice, touching his fingertips together and trying hard to repress a smile. “Dad!” Sean stopped his dad's teasing with a tilt of his head and a tone that said “please be serious.” Gabe took a deep breath and straightened his facial expression to show he was listening. “We talked about sex at church today,” Sean stated matterof-factually.  Gabe's eye brows arched, wondering what they had talked about and why Sean was so focused. “So tell me about sex,” Gabe kept his voice easy and hopefully encouraging, all while his stomach clenched in anticipation. “Well, not really about sex, but about our relationship with God,” Sean started to explain, unsure of the exact words he should use to describe his thoughts. “We are children of God and He loves us.” Gabe nodded in agreement. “God let's us do mostly what we want and if we chose to disobey the commandments he doesn't really stop us.” “God has power over life and death and we shouldn't interfere with it except when He has said we can. We can punish murderers or people who do really bad things and we can have babies when we are married.” Gratefully, so far, all of this seemed rather tame, but he tried to sense where the conversation headed. “I heard you once say you always use protection because you don't want to have end up in the same boat twice. What did that mean?” Sean inquired.
The realization that Sean had ever overheard him say such a thing, shocked Gabe. He kicked himself for having a big mouth. He didn't ever want his son to feel like he wasn't wanted or that Gabe had been forced into something because he came along. True, he had only gotten engaged because Sean's mom became pregnant. Gabe had always wanted kids and he felt thrilled when he found out she was expecting. He hadn't dated his ex for very long and they really had no business getting married. They weren't in love and wouldn't have stayed together much longer except for the baby. The brief relationship lasted until Sean was four months old. Gabe took Sean with him to visit some friends and came home to a letter and an empty closet. Her announcement that she wasn't ready to be a mom came as no surprise, but the idea she would abandon her son did. Her attorney handled the custody arrangement and Gabe didn't even see her for several years afterward. Sean only spent time with her occasionally through the years, a few birthdays and one Christmas. Grasping for words, Gabe tried to explain, “I know it's not fair, that's why I have tried to avoid having any more kids. I love you, I just don't want any other kids unless I am married so their mom and I can take care of them together.” Sean's face broke into a huge smile.. Evidently it was the answer he wanted to hear. Encouraged he continued, “I've been thinking that it would be better to wait until I'm married to have sex.” Gabe asked, “Did they tell you that it was wrong or you would be bad to not wait?” “No, they didn't tell us anything. This is just stuff I've been thinking about since my health class last year,” Sean answered his
dad's questions honestly.  “I wanna make it my goal. It's just a goal between me and God. Personal, you know? Jude told me that at his church they made all the kids promise in front of everybody they would keep a chastity pledge. I didn't like that idea.” Sean had obviously thought a lot about it. “I think it's important though.” Gabe nodded, happy Sean decided for himself how he wanted to live and what God asked of him, but silently wondering if this goal would stand the test of time. The next bomb, though, dropped on him totally unprepared. “Dad, I think you should make this promise too.” Sean told him earnestly. “You are single, and you should live the commandments same as me. You just said you don't want to have any more accidental kids when you are not married to the mom. What do you think? Will you do this with me, Dad? Will you?” Gabe felt like a knife was driven into his chest. With each sentence it twisted and plunged in deeper. NO! I am not living like a Priest. Is he crazy? What can he possibly be thinking. I'm an adult, he's a kid. Of course, he should wait. That's what I want for him, but there is no way I am going to live that way. Adults should have adult relationships, it's that simple. Gabe had never even considered a promise like the one Sean described. He stared at his son's face ready to try to explain to him how it is different for adults. He wanted to say he could not realistically live that way. Instead, he found himself face to face with the green eyes he loved most in the world. He saw his son's innocent resolution to live God's will. The excuses he had been crafting so passionately seconds before were evaporating. How do I encourage him to live in a way I'm not willing to live myself? I know better than anyone that telling a kid that's he's
not he's old enough is the surest way to drive him to it. Do as I say, not as I do is the dumbest way to be a parent. Sean waited. “Yes,” Gabe whispered. What am I doing? “I promise you I will wait until I am married before I sleep with anyone else.” Gabe could hardly get the words out. Sean is the only person in the world who could pull such a vow from him. Only his love for his son could make him even consider it. Sean smiled and hugged his dad. “I'm so happy we're going to do this together.” Sean jumped up and ran off to play with the other kids, not a care in the world. Gabe, on the other hand, let his head drop in his hands. He felt like he had been socked in the stomach, repeatedly. He had no idea how he would ever live up to his word.
Chapter 11
A week later, Anna staggered off the small plane convinced she was going to die. The motion sickness wrist band hadn't helped at all, nor had the pills she took. Shear determination made her walk across the tarmac and toward the small airport terminal. She collapsed on a bench just outside the coffee shop. The winter air felt much colder and snow piled up along the corners of the airport and surrounding streets. She didn't care if she got hypothermia right now, she just needed the earth to stop turning momentarily so she could recover. “I think I'll feel better if the earth's rotation stops. Could one of you please get right on that?” Anna tried to joke, but secretly wished it was possible. Fifteen minutes later Gabe, Sean, and Chris reached the group after parking the small plane and loading the luggage into the rental car. Gabe knelt next to Anna still lying on the bench, her head now in her mom's lap. “Are you going to live?” he asked, seriously concerned.
She sat up slowly with her eyes still closed. “I had some 7up and popcorn from the coffee shop to settle my stomach and I think I may survive. But,...I need to drive to the cabin.” Gabe waited for the punch line and then accepted she was serious. “If I drive I won't be sick. It's the only way I'll make it up the mountain,” she explained. He helped her to her feet and handed her the keys. Temporarily stunned, she paused for a few seconds then looked up at him gratefully, surprised at this man willing to relinquish control of the rental car to her just because she asked. She smoothly lead the SUV up the winding mountain road leading through a pass and into a neighboring valley. Clusters of trees popped up here and there, hiding several ranches and cabins. Gabe motioned where Anna should take a right turn.  As the steering wheel came back around she applied the brakes sharply and came to a sudden, jarring stop. The others in the car slammed into the seats in front and one another. “What's wrong? What happened?” various voices inquired worriedly. “Look at that sunset,” she replied, slightly out of breath.  She pointed to the streaks of red, orange, and light blue. The golden sunlight filtered through the foliage, breaking through in spectacular glimpses of color.  “It's amazing how the colors blend with the trees. How peaceful and beautiful,” she sighed in contentment at the beauty out the front window. Several momentary groans about being slammed to a stop to look at a sunset turned into mutual appreciation of the view. It
was truly gorgeous. “The Sierra Nevadas and Tahoe especially are my favorite mountain place. It's so green, all year round, even when it's covered in snow,” Doug chimed in. Everyone nodded agreement, too entranced to speak. Eventually, Bob, Anna's dad, commented, “I think if it had been up to me I would have just made the whole world covered in beaches. It's a good thing God knows better than I do.” He laughed. “I think it's also a sign of His love for us. So much detail, so much variety on the earth, from the smallest insect to the largest mountain, all of it for us.  Amazing to think how much work and planning must have gone into it, just for our enjoyment and benefit.” “God is good,” Sean added. Anna slowly pushed on the gas pedal and they continued their travels toward the cabin. Soon she could see a small clearing with a beautiful log house, a smaller cabin laid a ways away and the barn stood alone between them with a fenced corral. “John Michelson and his wife and daughters live here year round to take care of the animals and land,” Gabe explained. “Susan said she would turn on the heater this afternoon, so the house should be ready for us when we get inside.” Just then the front door opened and a woman in her forties stepped outside and waved. Anna pulled up to the circular gravel drive and stopped in front of the house. The doors opened and everyone climbed out. Gabe gave the woman a hug and she motioned to the smaller cabin. Then, they turned and he introduced her to Anna, Chris, Bob, and Mary. “I just dusted a little. There's nothing worse than traveling all this way and walking into spider webs the second you walk in the
door,” Sue said. Gabe scolded her for going to so much effort, but she waved it away and added she and John had prepared dinner. “If it's OK with you, we'll eat in the house. Too many people won't fit in our cabin,” Sue added.  Gabe, with his arms filled with bags, followed Sue headed toward the house, while the rest of them carried in their luggage and Rose gave them the grand tour. The first floor was large and open, a family kitchen, painted red, filled one corner, Anna liked it immediately. The walls were a little more of an orange-red than her kitchen at home, but just as fun. The rest of the area divided into two sitting rooms. One surrounded a large television, the other an over-sized coffee table with plush chairs. Off to one side opened a large bedroom with an attached bathroom for Rose and Doug. “Our knees aren't young enough to be running up and down the stairs all the time” They followed Rose to the second floor which housed the majority of the bedrooms and guest bathrooms. Anna and Chris chose a room with two twin beds near the stair landing. Her parents, Mary and Bob took the room in the far corner hoping it would be a little quieter.  A final flight led up to Gabe and Sean's room, a loft tucked underneath the eaves. A bunk bed and a queen bed lined the walls. Toy bins filled the space behind the door. A carved wood desk sat under the main picture window. “Sean is always inviting friends over, so they need extra beds and we still end up with kids on the floor,” Rose motioned toward the bunks. Anna pointed out the beautiful quilt and pillow shams on Gabe's bed. “I didn't take him for a flowery kind of guy,” she smiled.
Rose told her about the older woman who lived in town and still made the lovely quilts to supplement her income. “Gabe asked her to make several quilts for him. He has them all over the house. It may seem a little feminine, but he actually likes some of the softer touches.” Anna raised her eyebrows in surprise,  “A man who actually chooses a flowered quilt has to be pretty secure in his masculinity.” “Haven't you ever seen his room back home in Santa Monica?” Rose asked trying to sound casual and not pry. “She made that bedspread for him too.” Anna shook her head No, and it was Rose's turn to be surprised. A thought crossed Rose's mind, but she dismissed it as she turned toward the door. The suitcases were unpacked and everyone had gathered downstairs when Gabe returned with Sue, John, and their teenage daughters, Poppy and Clover. Mary commented on their names and Sue shared the story of her two aunts, Patricia and Chloe, who were never called by their real names. “They were like mothers to me after my mom died, so we named our girls after them.” The girls agreed their names were original, but they fit their personalities well. John and Sue had brought over enough food to feed an army and the hungry travelers dug in. Even Anna regained her appetite when met with all the delicious, aromatic food. They were half way through eating when the door opened and Doug's brother, Uncle Jack, stepped in followed by Aunt Jenny and their youngest son Tom.  They were quickly introduced to everyone and invited to join the dinner party, their bags left at the bottom of the stairs. It had been a long day and after dinner everyone separated
to their rooms to get a good night's sleep. John, Sue, and the girls went back to their home. Chris and Sean went up to the loft to hang out for a while before bed. Gabe and Anna stayed up to wash dishes and clean up dinner. “It was so kind of John and Sue to cook for all of us. We'll have leftovers for the rest of the weekend,” Anna commented. “She does as much as she can before we get here,” Gabe explained. “She helps John with the horses and chickens, too. He's a handyman and she used to teach, before the girls came along. They moved up here when their daughters were little, to enjoy the solitude. They've lived here for so many years; they are just part of the family now. It's comforting to know I have someone up here to keep up the place when we're gone. They wanted to live on a ranch but couldn't afford it and I wanted the cabin but can't be here all year long to watch over it. It's the perfect arrangement.” They talked more as they finished the dishes, then Gabe walked her around the downstairs pointing out each unique piece of furniture or feature of the house. She remarked on the beauty of the whole house and she loved some of the small details which added character and personality to it. It was just as much a home as his house in Santa Monica. Tired, they walked up the stairs to the second floor and said goodnight. Anna headed to her room and Gabe continued up the second stairway. When she entered the room, Anna noticed Chris missing. She assumed he was still upstairs with Sean and walked up to the loft to find him. She knocked lightly on the door not wanting to wake anyone. It took a moment for Gabe to open the door and when he did he stood there in just his jeans, no shirt. Anna's heart fluttered to her throat and she chastised herself. After all this time, she
should be over this reaction to him. She should be immune.  Gabe pointed to the bottom bed of the near bunk. Chris lay sound asleep snoring lightly. A foot,  Anna assumed belonged to Sean, hung over the edge of the top bunk. “It's OK if he sleeps up here,” Gabe assured her. He watched her walk over to the bed, rub Chris' back and turn him over on his side. “Now he won't snore.” She ran her hand across his head like a little boy. “Although,…He's like a human radiator. I looked forward to making him warm up my bed for me.” Gabe's body lurch slightly and he felt taken off guard by his desire to solve that issue for her. “Sorry, I can't help you there,” he looked very off balance. Smiling, she tried to reassure him, “I wouldn't expect you to.” She said good night and touched his arm as she walked away. He flinched when she touched him and she felt the twinge of his muscles. Once again she reminded herself to keep her distance. He watched her descend the stairs. How much longer am I going to be able to stop myself? It's not like I don't have platonic relationships with women. Why is it so difficult with her? The sun rose early and bright the next morning. The boys were still sleeping as Gabe quietly shut the door behind him and ventured downstairs to the smell of pancakes, eggs and bacon.  A greeting came from his parents, standing next to Anna's parents, and Anna still in her pajamas. He self-consciously ran his fingers through his hair to smooth it down and scratched his short beard. I probably look like a Sasquatch. “Good morning. Are the boys still sleeping?” Mary asked
handing Gabe a plate. He nodded and dished up several pancakes and a few strips of slightly crisp bacon as well as a large helping of fruit salad. He carefully picked out the grapes. “What have we got planned for today?” Bob asked facing the beautiful view out the large windows lining the front room. “Well, if anyone is brave enough to face the cold we can go for a horse ride or out on the snowmobiles. The kids will probably want to do both,” Gabe explained. “There are enough horses for eight of us to go at a time.” Turning to his dad, “I borrowed the calm ones from Jodie,” he answered before Doug could even ask where the extra horses came from. Before long the boys and Tom came downstairs looking for breakfast. They piled generous portions on their plates and sat down at the table to eat. Anna excused herself to get dressed while Doug and Jack planned a ride for the afternoon when it warmed up a little. Rose and Mary were washing dishes; a loud “hello” came from the entry. Gabe's cousin, her husband, and their kids arrived with Rose's brother Gene. 'Boisterous' understated Gene. He greeted everyone loudly and enthusiastically. He chided Doug about getting old. He teased Rose about being married to such a layabout. He joked that Sean had grown too tall and needed to play for the NBA. He asked Sean and Chris about their girlfriends and acted shocked when they told him that at age thirteen, they were too young to be dating. Gene handed each boy a suitcase and asked them to carry the luggage upstairs to the room that would be his. Running down stairs after depositing Gene's belongings, the boys were ready for a horse ride. By the time Anna came back
downstairs, the horses were saddled and the party waited for Gabe. He came down a few minutes later carrying Sean's coat and gloves as well as his own. The horses were waiting and Gabe assigned rides to each person based on ability and size. Sean had his own horse and Tom had his favorite. His cousin and her husband were able with horses and were given friskier mounts. Clover and Poppy had “their” horses too. They belonged to Gabe but each girl had a favorite adopted horse. Anna and Chris were given trusted and gentle borrowed horses. Gabe's steed, tall and energetic, responded precisely to even the slightest command he gave him. The ride through the mountains started peaceful and thought provoking, but once the kids adjusted to the horses the fun began. Tom and Sean raced up hills and around boulders; Chris, not as accustomed to being on a horse, proceeded with caution. After about twenty minutes, he felt more confident and took a few more chances. Anna had been around horses when she was younger, but it had been years since she had been in a saddle.  She felt very aware that she was no longer eighteen and if she fell it would hurt a lot more now than back when she acted a lot braver and a lot less careful. Gabe sped after Sean and Tom up a short hill while Chris and Anna lumbered along after them. Tom beat both of them, but Gabe came in a close second. Anna’s horse itched to run too.  She hated to restrain him, but didn’t feel up to the task of racing. The gentle rhythmic rocking allowed her to divert her attention to the beautiful scenery. Gary and Stephanie rode playfully along the trail, racing up
hills, but meandering along enjoying the scenery. The girls could out ride any of them, but felt no need to race or show off. Their everyday lives revolved around their horses and the ranch, so this ride was just a fun stroll with friends. The tall peaks reached almost to the sky. The white summits hid permanent glaciers which survived even the warmest summers. Blue skies with wispy clouds blended seamlessly as they touched the sharp wedges of the mountain tops. The shade of the largest evergreens made their pathway ten degrees cooler than the chilled air around them. After two hours, they were all chilled through and the party decided to head back to the barn. The snow covered hills were picturesque as they rode along a nearly invisible trail. Luckily, Gabe and Sean had ridden this way so often they knew it well, and Clover and Poppy of course knew it. The horses were eager to get back to their warm beds and full food troughs. Gabe, Tom, and the girls unsaddled the horses while the rest headed back into the house. Sean and Chris ran upstairs eager to prepare for a D&D session once Tom finished in the barn. Anna headed toward the other adults in the kitchen but a familiar voice stopped her in her tracks. Rana spat out, “I can’t believe she’s here with him. I don’t understand what he sees in her.” Adam responded, “She’s here with her son, he’s friends with Sean, nothing more.” Jayne reassured her, “Rose showed us her room. She’s not even sleeping with him. You have nothing to worry about.” Anna didn’t want to interrupt, but she didn’t appreciate the others discussing her, especially in an unfriendly way. She went back to the front door and shut it loudly calling, “Hello” as she entered
the living room.  The conversation ended abruptly and she smiled as she walked in. They greeted her warmly and she pretended to be surprised to see them. In reality, she was surprised to see them. No one had said anything about them coming. “We decided last minute to come up. A late season hurricane ruined our vacation, and we were bored, so we decided to come up here instead. Gabe appreciates when we come, so he isn’t alone,” Jayne explained.  “It’s rustic up here and we enjoy the time away to unwind,” Adam added. Anna considered the house with indoor plumbing, heating, satellite, game systems, internet, and plenty of spare bedrooms?  Rustic is not how she would describe it and she wondered what they’d think of real camping. Anna headed into the kitchen, motioning for them to join her. Lunch was underway and Anna  gratefully allowed the others to carry the conversation. She had spent time with Jayne and Adam twice since the first afternoon she met them at Gabe’s house. Her opinion hadn’t improved, but she acted well, for Gabe’s sake. She wasn’t accustomed to those who valued society or intellectuality above all else. Her life revolved around down to earth people with more pressing issues. It wasn’t that she didn’t like them, but their view of the world took some getting used to.  Rana had avoided her like the plague and hadn’t joined them whenever Anna was invited. In the kitchen, plans were being made for a shopping trip in town. The local shops were filled with eclectic treasures. Many of the items were cheap tourist items, but hidden among the “made in china” items are works by local artisans and undiscovered valuables.
Rose told Mary about a quilt shop they needed to visit and the fabric options it offered. Rana announced she was staying to rest; she had plans to go out that evening. Matt wandered into the kitchen to agree with Rana, he wouldn’t be able to enjoy the evening properly if he wore himself out wandering around stores. Anna hadn’t seen Matt since their date a few months earlier. She hadn’t thought about it, but he must have been avoiding her as well. He walked over, said hello and gave her a hug as though they were old friends and she didn’t contradict him. Gabe walked in, Matt just smiled, but Anna quickly stepped aside and removed his arm from around her. “Where did you guys come from?” Gabe asked Matt and Rana. “We came to visit you,” Rana purred. “The hurricane spoiled our vacation and so we decided to come brave the cold instead.” She pouted a little when she spoke, as though the storm was created just to interfere in her plans and the loss of a week in the sun and surf was a great tragedy.  “Just the two of you or did Jayne, Adam, and Michael come along?” Gabe asked. He spoke unusually reserved, not as ready for fun as she expected. “All of us. Jayne is putting some bags in their room, Adam is reading, and Michael will be up later. He doesn’t have his boy for the weekend so he has him today and can’t get away until this evening,” Matt answered. Rose informed her son of their shopping plans for the afternoon and he eagerly accepted the plan. “We were planning on hitting a few clubs, Gabe, and knew you’d want to go out with us tonight,” Rana announced, sure Gabe
would choose her plan over his mother’s. “I can do both,” he answered with a smile, “I’m not as old as I look.” A herd of children came into the kitchen lead by Chris who announced the question, “We’re starving, what’s for lunch?”  “Macaroni and cheese with fruit on the side,” Rose told him, “Wash up all of you and then wait at the table and we’ll bring it out in a minute.” The kids left in the general direction of the bathroom and Anna followed to make sure at least most of the hands made it in the water. She balanced Ryan on her knee so he could reach the sink when Mary walked in to help. “Who are these friends?” she asked Anna. “He’s known Matt since they were little boys. Adam and Jayne are friends from college. I’m not sure where Rana is from, but she’s best friends with Jayne,…” “And is after Gabe from the looks of it,” Mary interrupted. “And is after Gabe.” Anna admitted. “She doesn’t like me, she’s never around when I am,” Anna responded. “They are always invited.  Like they said, plans went south so they knew they were welcome here.” Anna set Ryan down and sent him off to go find lunch. Mary looked at her daughter, about to say something about the relationship with Gabe, but thought better of it and simply turned and walked away. “Let’s go see if Rose needs help dishing up bowls for all the monkeys.” The adults scattered throughout the downstairs to eat their chicken salad while Anna, Mary, Jayne and Rose sat with the kids at the table. Gabe, Matt, Bob, and Doug were discussing football
prospects and the others listened in. It only took a few minutes before the kids had devoured their lunches and were ready to head out to play in the tree house out behind the barn.  When Sean was 4, he and Gabe along with Gabe’s dad, Doug, had planned and built an amazing tree house. It had three levels, each one child sized. So short Gabe could just barely stand, his head brushed the ceiling. There were ropes, ladders, dumb waiters, and climbing holds attached on all sides of the structure so the kids could get from story to story any way they chose. Sean drew and painted on the walls of his own personal escape. In the summer, he spent evenings out under the stars, sometimes he invited his dad, sometimes only kids were allowed. No matter how old the kid, a visit to the cabin wasn’t complete without some play time in the tree house, even the grown up “kids.” Coats were found and shoes tied and the race outside began. Little Ryan was told he needed a nap, but his eyes filled with tears and his lower lip protruded. He looked so sad to be left out that Adam allowed him to go out for a few minutes. He would go out to get him in a little while. With tears drying on his cheeks his put his own shoes on, slipping them on the wrong feet as little kids usually do. His dad zipped up his jacket and off he ran after the others. The quiet in the house felt a little unnerving to those who were used to the hustle and bustle of small people. The table was cleared and dishes washed. The chicken was prepared and left to marinate for dinner. A board game started in the far corner on the coffee table; Doug found a corner to read and Adam debated the merits of a new immigration proposal with an unsuspecting Bob. After quite a while in peaceful silence, Gabe stood and
stretched, he figured he would go check on the kids. It wasn’t too cold outside and the sun shone, but they had been out there for about forty-five minutes. He had barely opened the door when Chris came speeding around the corner of the house at a dead run, out of breath. He waved at Gabe to come and finally got out the words, “Sean fell.”
Chapter 12
Gabe started running and Anna dashed out after him not even stopping to close the door. Chris’ ashen face revealed his worry as he ran back as fast as he could to his friend. Sean lay at an odd angle on the ground beneath at the foot of the tree house ladder. Ryan sat on the second level crying in pain. Sofi knelt on the floor half holding Ryan, trying to comfort him so he would stop. Sean was unconscious, but still breathing and Gabe yelled at Anna to run back to the cabin and call 911. His cell phone didn’t have service. She made it half way back before she saw Rose step out. “Call 911, Sean is unconscious,” Anna yelled at her and ran back to the tree house to see what she could do to help. When she returned Gabe checked Sean for fractured bones; thankfully nothing appeared to be broken. Anna hugged Chris who stammered, visibly distraught. “Ryan fell asleep and Sean said he could carry him down
from the top story and into the house. He got down the first ladder and had just started down the second ladder when his hand slipped. He pushed Ryan onto the landing, that’s why he’s crying, but then Sean fell. He wouldn’t wake up. I checked to make sure he was breathing like they taught us in first aid at scouts.  I didn’t know what else to do though, so I ran for you guys.” Chris’ eyes filled and he choked on the last words. Doug, Bob, Mary and Rose came running. “Paramedics will be at least a half hour to get up here. If he can be moved, they can meet us at the bottom of the mountain and take him from there,” Doug announced. Adam followed after them and took Ryan, now calmed down, from Sofi. “Is there a board we can roll him onto and carry him stabilized to the car?” Anna asked. Rose told her about some extra wood in the barn and Anna and Adam took off running. Gabe stayed holding his child’s hand. They found the wood and brought back a stiff board long enough to hold Sean, but short enough to fit in the car.  Rose held Sean’s head still as the men gently rolled him onto the board. Anna returned to the house to get the keys and bring the suburban over near the tree house. The car stopped feet away from the injured boy. Rose climbed in the far back seat and Chris got in after her. Anna started to protest, but the look on his face silenced her objections. Doug and Bob loaded Sean on the back seat while Gabe steadied the board and then sat on the floor beside Sean to hold him still. Doug climbed in the front seat and Anna sped away as quickly as she could safely traverse the uneven ground. Mary, Bob, and Adam took the other children back to the house.
The twisting mountain roads frustrated Anna. Each turn seemed to conspire to slow down their desperate hurry, each bump in the road a potential danger to a boy with unknown injuries. No one spoke the whole drive, but many silent prayers were offered pleading for God’s help and protection. Anna pulled into the shopping center lot seconds before the ambulance arrived. The paramedics transferred Sean and the 20 minute trip to the hospital began. Sirens running and lights flashing Gabe and Sean disappeared down the road. Anna followed carefully behind, held up by other cars and traffic lights. Eventually, the gleam of the hospital came into view. It stood taller than the surrounding buildings and Anna directed the suburban into the closest parking spot. Everyone jumped out of the car and Chris practically ran into the Emergency Entrance. Anna assured him a few seconds would not make a difference, but she also felt anxious for Rose and Doug to walk faster. Rose approached the receptionist and inquired about Sean. He was being cared for, Gabe was with him, and they could wait in a small room across the hall. Someone would come and update them as soon as they learned any results or new information. Vinyl covered chairs and small tables filled a typical waiting room. A few magazines and a left over news paper spilled over a table and onto the floor. A few small children’s toys, wooden cars and a bead maze, filled a corner of the room. The patterned linoleum flooring and light green wall color appeared designed to make people sick, not help them recover. Chris, uninterested in reading, anxiously twisted in his seat. Anna offered to take him to the gift shop to look for a balloon for Sean to keep Chris’ mind off his friend’s condition. They wandered through hallways and double doors until they noticed a sign with
arrows pointing out directions. The small gift store opened in a corner, visible near the main entrance. They took their time looking at each item for sale. Finally, they decided on a star balloon attached to a small plastic stick; brightly colored with “get well” printed in a gold font and streamers attached at the base. Rose and Doug were not in the waiting room when they returned. A quick check at the Emergency Room reception desk told them Sean had been taken to CT for a scan and Gabe should return to the waiting room shortly. Anna spotted him as they left the ER. He looked very tired and his shoulders slumped as he collapsed in a lightly padded chair. His hands covered his face and his breathing was shallow and uneven. Anna knelt on the chair beside him and wrapped her arms around him. His shoulders began to shake and a small sob escaped. She tightened her embrace and kissed him on the head, like she would have comforted Chris. Rose and Doug returned to the room and rushed in to ask Gabe about Sean’s status. “He is getting a CT scan to check for brain injury. He came to while he was in the room, but seems to be drifting in and out. He has a large swollen egg on the left side of his head; he must have hit a buried tree root. There isn’t any blood and since it’s swelling outside, hopefully it’s not swelling inside. The scan should tell us more.” Gabe stifled his panic in order to get the words out. Rose sat on the other side of Gabe and held his hand. It seemed like hours or days that they all sat there frozen, each lost in their own thoughts. The door creaked as it opened and a doctor came in with a very serious expression. It softened as he saw them all. “It looks fine; there isn’t any swelling on the brain. He has a
severe concussion and we want to keep him overnight for observation. They are moving him now to a room. He is awake and asking for you.” The doctor was taken aback when Gabe stood abruptly and hugged him. “I don’t want more than 2 or 3 at a time,” the doctor added and gave them the room number. All five of them dashed through the hospital corridors. Anna stopped in the hall on the upper floor to make a phone call back to the cabin to inform everyone of the wonderful news and the new over night plans. Jayne answered the phone and was relieved to hear from her. Anna could hear her repeating to the others. Jayne said good-bye and Anna hurried to catch up to the others speeding down the hall. Anna and Chris waited outside the hospital room door while Rose, Doug, and Gabe went in. Sean, obviously groggy, tried to focus on Gabe as he sat in a chair at the bedside. Gabe held desperately to Sean’s hand as though it was a lifeline binding Sean there with him. Rose stood beside her son and Doug sat on a stool at the foot of the bed. Gabe caressed his son’s arm, afraid to touch his head now. A flexible ice pack laid under Sean’s head with a thin towel between the pack and his shaggy scalp. Fifteen minutes later, Rose and Doug came out and told Anna and Chris they could go in. Chris stopped in the doorway when he saw the EKG machine and IV hooked up to his friend. Gabe motioned for them to come in, never letting go of his son’s hand. Chris only came over to the foot of his bed and waved hello. Sean had a hard time focusing and Gabe offered, “Chris and Anna are here to see you too.” Chris took a deep breath, “I was scared when you fell.”
Sean, still not thinking clearly enough to respond, just closed and opened his eyes in an attempt to nod. Anna touched his leg and told him, “You just get some rest, dude. Don’t think smashing your brain is going to get you out of eating my world famous pumpkin pie. You have to be hurt worse than that to escape.” Sean smiled and closed his eyes for a second. “You probably just need a nap after all this excitement.” She said it more for Gabe's and Chris’ benefit. Gabe looked at her thankfully and then returned his focus on Sean. Sean slipped back into unconsciousness. Anna and Chris walked out to the hall to talk to Rose and Doug. “The nurse says it will be at least a few hours until Sean is coherent. I would love to stay, but we should take you two and Rose back to the cabin,” Doug suggested. They all agreed and Doug went back in the room to explain the plan to Gabe. Anna met them all at the door with the car. The drive back flew by now that the need to hurry disappeared. She turned the car into the drive before she noticed all three of them had drifted off. She shook each one gently and they all groggily walked into the house to share the latest update. Sue, John, and they daughters were waiting at the house for them too. In their absence, Mary had prepared dinner and the delicious aroma filled the house. They were met by Jayne, Adam, Rana, Matt, and Michael all dressed to go out. Anna looked at them in stunned silence. It took her a minute to realize they were following through with their plans. It surprised her that they seemed unconcerned with Sean being in the hospital. But then she considered their staying around the cabin waiting wouldn’t do any good and they might as well be
out having fun. No use sitting around worrying. They said good bye and left Clover and Poppy to babysit. Rose was amazed to see it was 8:30 pm already. Doug sat down at the table and Mary handed him a plate.  Chris waited for his dinner, his head leaning on his arm on the table. He nodded and nearly rolled off the chair. The anxiety of the day had worn him out. Anna dished herself some food while Mary got some for Rose. One look at them and she knew Doug would not be in any position to travel back to the hospital, especially down the mountain roads in the dark. “If you’d rather, I am happy to go back to the hospital and stay with Gabe and Sean,” Anna offered. “I’ll take Gabe some food and he can get some rest while I keep watch.” Initially Doug declined, but eventually admitted his exhaustion and gladly accepted her offer. Sue and John suggested they go with her, but Doug explained they wouldn’t be permitted in the room after visiting hours. Anna was permitted in only because one of the nurses had mistakenly assumed Anna was Gabe’s significant other. As nearly family she was allowed to be there. Anna raised her eyebrows in surprise, she hadn’t known about the misunderstanding. She hadn’t even thought about it. Grateful none the less, she walked up the stairs to grab a change of clothes for Gabe sure he wouldn't leave the hospital at all and would be glad for some clean things. She felt a little silly as she went through his drawers deciding on clothes, but pushed it out of her head. Underwear and socks should not embarrass her, she laughed to herself as she placed them all in a bag.  Last minute she remembered his toothbrush and deodorant from the bathroom and added them to her collection. Just as an after thought she grabbed hers as well. If she was
going to let him get some rest, she might need to stay. It only took a minute to grab an extra shirt and her toiletries. Mary had filled two plastic storage containers with food and a jug with fruit juice. She handed them to Anna as she rounded the foot of the stairs. Anna kissed Chris good night and assured him his friend would be ok. “I’ll be here when you wake up tomorrow. I love you,” she added as she walked to the car and Chris stood in the doorway watching her leave. The headlights barely illuminated the darkness as she drove the swerving  mountain road for the third time that day.
Still at the hospital, Gabe felt both grateful his parents, Anna and Chris left, and yet, abandoned at the same time. I don’t want to have to pretend to have it together. I can’t act like I’m strong or have any answers. I can’t pretend like I know it will work out all right. But I really wish someone was here to tell me he will be fine. I could use a shoulder to cry on. His mind drifted back to his breakdown this afternoon and how nice it felt to have arms around him for comfort. Anna walked into the lobby of the hospital and an attendant walking by stopped her, “It is way past visiting hours and I can’t let you in.” Trying to be discrete she explained, “I am bringing clothes for the father of the patient in room 273. He is still in there and I just need to see him.” The woman told her to wait there while she checked at the nurses station. A few minutes later she returned and gladly directed her to the elevator to get up to the second floor. “Sorry about the misunderstanding. They said you are to go right in. You must be family,” the attendant added, obviously fishing
for information. Eager to get inside and a little afraid if she told them she was just a friend they would not let her go, Anna didn’t correct her and simply responded, “Almost.” The woman smiled and opened the door to the corridor. Only a small table lamp barely lit Sean's room. Gabe sat in a standard waiting room padded chair set close to the bed. His elbows rested on the edge of the mattress, his head buried in his hands. Anna opened the door and seeing her there brought a little bit of sunshine to a dreary day. She will take care of me. I can rely on her. Anna dropped the bag on the floor at Gabe’s feet and dug out the plastic containers of food. She pulled off a lid and inserted a fork. She handed it to Gabe and nicely commanded, “eat.” He tried to shake his head no and tell her he wasn’t hungry, but she stared at him with a look that she used for the boys when they were doing something stupid but she didn’t want to scold. When he took a bite, she relaxed, pulled out the bottle of juice and twisted open the cap. After a few bites, he really was starving, she handed him the juice which he gulped eagerly. He made quick work of the food and drink. Sitting back in the chair his eyes closed for a second. Now that he had eaten his fill, his mind could focus again. He returned his attention to his son. Anna touched his shoulder to get his attention. He turned to look at her briefly, but focused his gaze again on the unconscious boy. “There is a new doctor and she has been in several times to check on him. Sean is unconscious again, not just sleeping, and he is not responding at all. The doctor is worried, she doesn’t say it, but I
can see it.” The words tumbled out in a whisper, the tears in his voice barely veiled. “I can’t survive if he doesn’t make it. I can’t lose him. I have nothing else.” A small tear escaped, “Oh, God, please make him alright. Please heal him and bring him back to me.” What had started as an explanation to her had ended in a prayer, pleading for his son’s life. She pulled a second chair to sit beside him. She wrapped her arms around him and rested her head on his shoulder. She closed her eyes and silently prayed for Sean and for his dad. Warm tears escaped as she considered how she would feel if put in his place. Anna couldn't do much, but at least she could try to take away some of the fear. Leaning against the bed, elbows resting on the blanket, Gabe started to crave sleep. It was still very early, but the stress had taken its toll. He couldn’t believe only this morning he had planned to go out shopping with his parents and still go out with the gang tonight. He planned to help tomorrow with the Thanksgiving preparations. It seemed like weeks ago they had stood in the kitchen making plans. Anna raised her head and facing Gabe softly said, “You look tired, you can get some sleep and I will stay watch for you. I’ll wake you, I promise.” She tried to sound concerned, but firm. She prepared to meet resistance and fight it with every tool at her disposal. Concern and confidence started only round one. As expected, he declined. “I need to be here in case he wakes up.” Round two: Sarcasm, “Where do you think you are going? I meant for you to lean this incredibly comfortable chair against the wall and rest for a little while. I will stay awake so I can wake you the
moment he stirs.” Again he shook his head “No” and grabbed Sean’s hand as though he could hold her off with a firm grip on his charge. Round three: Supermom powers of logic and guilt, “Gabe, if you are so tired that you can’t keep your eyes open, how are you possibly going to take care of him when he does finally wake up? You need all your faculties in case there are decisions to be made. You need to be able to think in case something goes wrong.” She stood and edged her way between him and the bed. “Move your chair against the wall. You can lean back and sleep for a short time. You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of him.” In a firmer voice she added, “I will take care of him. Trust him to me for just a little while.” Finally, he relented, “I do trust you. I trust you with him.” He pushed the chair backwards, tried to recline slightly and closed his eyes. Within seconds he fell fast asleep. Anna moved the second chair to the place where Gabe had been. She took up his vigil holding Sean’s hand. She heard Gabe start to snore slightly. He woke up several hours later.  Still dark outside, only the small lamp shown in the hospital room. He noticed her still sitting there, grasping Sean’s hand. Anna stared off into space lost in thought. Gabe unfolded his legs, then stood with a groan. He stretched his stiff and cramped body after too many hours twisted in a hard chair. Anna turned at the sound and stood up, facing him. His tired eyes were framed with exhaustion and worry lines, as though the last several hours of sleep had not happened. Anna wanted to comfort him. She knew he had been strong for too long. Single parents often develop a ‘I need to do it all because there is no one around to help me’ complex. He, and he alone, took
responsibility for Sean. She felt tired too and, at that point, lost all inhibition. Anna stepped close to him and raised her fingers to softly trace the lines around his eyes as though she could magically erase them. She wished she could draw out all the worry, wanting to leave him with just peace and the belief it would be alright.  She momentarily reminded herself to stay clear of her attraction for him, but felt too tired to run from it now. Her fingers were gentle and Gabe wanted to succumb to the peaceful sensation. Closing his eyes, he let her touch wipe away the stress and horror of the past few hours. After a few moments, she lowered her hand, brushing it against the soft stubble lining his jaw, landing it on his shoulder. Without thinking he wrapped his arms around her. I need her support. I need her comfort. I need her strength. It surprised him when she responded by resting her head on his chest and melting against him. He tightened his arms around her; a warm sensation spread around his heart. They stood there for several minutes, each one attuned to the breath and heartbeat of the other. Unable to calm the pounding in her chest, Anna raised her head and to look him in the eyes. Gabe fought within himself for only a short few seconds. Bending his head toward hers, he stopped a scant inch away, waiting for her to respond. Gabe needed to know Anna wanted him, that it wasn't just his desire to kiss her. She closed the space between them. His eyes gently shut as she pressed her lips to his. This was so much more than the small kiss they shared at the ball park or a half dozen times good bye. The strength of her lips, the soft warmth of his kiss. Everything felt right with the world and would continue to be, so as long as her fingers remained
entwined in his hair and his hands remained firmly against her back. Minutes passed slowly as they were both lost in the comfort of their emotions and each others' touch. Several moments later, this utopian feeling was interrupted by the only thing that could make life better, a small voice coming from across the room. “Dad? My head hurts.”
Chapter 13
Anna stepped away from Gabe, clearing a path for him to his son. In two quick paces he crossed the room and stood by Sean’s bedside. Gabe gently fingered Sean’s head desperate to comfort him without doing any more damage. Sean raised his arm slightly, but quickly dropped it again. His eyes fluttered open, trying to focus on his dad's countenance. Anna slipped out the door to tell the nurse on duty Sean had awoken. It seemed only seconds later a doctor and another nurse entered the room, bustling to take vitals and examine the boy. Finally, a smile broke on the doctor’s face and she reassured Gabe everything looked good and Sean had made progress toward recovery. It would take some time, but she felt fairly certain Sean would be alright. “Up and driving you crazy in no time,” she added. Sean stayed awake for twenty minutes before he had worn himself out and needed to rest again. He struggled not to close his eyes, but sleep eventually won. Reinvigorated, Gabe resumed his
vigil, but Anna interrupted his plan. “You should go change. There are clothes and personal items in the bag. Once he’s awake again and needs you to be here you won’t be able to get it done. It will be hard to feel 100% if you are still wearing yesterday’s clothes, with yesterday’s grimy teeth and body odor.” Only women think of things like that.  I’m in a hospital, does it really matter if I have B.O.? But, he did agree washing up would wake him completely, although her kiss had done a pretty good job. He left her guarding over Sean in favor of a short shower and fresh clothes. When he walked out of the bathroom fifteen minutes later, she had also changed her shirt and smelled less like old laundry. Sean remained asleep. He returned to the chair that had been his home for the past 12 hours. Anna left to call the house and let them know the good news. Rose answered her cell phone and insisted she and Doug drive to the hospital immediately. The problem was Anna had the car at the hospital. They would wait another hour until Sue or John could take them into town. Completely exhausted, Anna sat in a chair and leaned against the wall to rest. Gabe offered his arm as her pillow instead of the hard, cold wall and she readily accepted. A little over an hour later she awakened when the doctor returned to check on Sean. His eyes were now focusing and he woke a little when she lifted his eye lid, both very good signs. Fully awake now, Anna went in search of breakfast. She returned with two bowls of runny oatmeal, two cups of fruit, and two cups of water. She juggled her bounty while trying to open the door. A nurse stopped her and explained there were already too
many people in the room and she would have to wait. “Who else is in there?” she questioned. “The grandparents,” the nurse replied directing her to a chair against the wall where she sat to wait. After a few minutes, she ate her oatmeal before it grew cold and then her fruit before it turned warm.  She sat trying to not rerun their kiss over in her mind, but her heart took over for a moment and she became overwhelmed with her feelings for him. In the past five months he had become her friend, the one she turned to and was most excited to spend time with. The day was not complete without a text or call to share the experiences from her day. Anna was attracted to him too, she had been from the first day at his house. Even when she thought him a chauvinist, she felt a pull toward him, both emotional and hormonal. Anna had tried in vain to ignore this fact. Her breathing sped up at the thought of the two of them actually starting a relationship.  She tried not to jump ahead in her mind, to not develop expectations, but her imagination wanted to wander. Finally, she jumped up, needing to think of something else. She asked the nurse to give them a message. Anna pulled a sheet of paper off the notebook she kept in her purse and wrote a short note.
Glad that Rose and Doug are here. I headed back to the cabin to get a little sleep and help with Thanksgiving. Call me if you need anything.
She walked half way outside before she realized if she drove the suburban the others could not get back. Off to her left, she spotted Sue sitting in a car in the parking lot. Sue and John had come in the hospital, but Sean’s condition was still fragile and only family was allowed in, so they had to go. Sue had stopped at the bathroom and browsed the gift shop before heading out. She selected a ‘Get Well’ balloon and brought it to the attendant at the front desk to have it delivered. Anna could catch a ride back to the cabin with them. She returned to leave the keys with her note. The bright light of day shone through the glass sliding doors. She stepped outside expecting to be assaulted by sunlight, but instead a camera crew and two reporters pounced on her asking for information about Sean and Gabe. “Are you the fiance we’ve heard about?” The other shouted, “What happened to his son? Is he hurt badly?” The first reporter asked about Sean’s mom and if she had been notified that Gabe had allowed their son to be hurt. Anna stopped, dazed and confused by the barrage of questions, added to the exhaustion of operating on less than 2 hours of sleep.  The day at the beach flashed back to her. She needed to talk to these people and make nice for Gabe’s sake. “Sean is fine; it’s just a bump on the head. No, I’m not his fiancé, just a friend. Have a good day,” she tried to push past them. She needed to catch Sue and John before they left. The questions kept coming and Anna didn’t understand any of them as her head swam. She continued smiling, being friendly, but she shook her head and ran toward Sue and John’s car, waving them down. Only when she arrived in the car with the door closed and
John began to pull away did they stop harassing her.
Sean recovered quickly, but the doctors wanted to keep him overnight again to make sure there was no permanent damage. They made a decision to postpone Thanksgiving until Friday so that Gabe, Sean, Rose and Doug could be there. After missing the night time vigil at the hospital the day before, Rose and Doug stayed at the hospital continuously until Friday morning. Doug called to let everyone at the house know they were on their way to the cabin about 11:00 am. Anna, Mary, and Sue were working on food preparations in the kitchen when they heard the car pull in the gravel drive. Rose walked to the cabin and opened the front door, while Gabe helped Sean walk slowly. Doug followed behind carrying Gabe’s over night bag from the day before. Gabe’s phone rang and he handed Sean off to Bob waiting at the door. The call came from his attorney and he stepped outside to answer it. After a couple minutes Gabe’s voice could be heard all the way in the house. He sounded very upset about something. He stormed toward the door and threw it open. Without stopping to close the door behind him he marched into the kitchen and glared at Anna. “What were you thinking?” he shot angrily at her. In complete surprise Anna didn’t know how to respond. She had seen him upset before, but never so furious and never directed at her. She furrowed her brow and stared at him in confusion. “How dare you answer questions about me or my son?” he shouted now. “Do you have any idea the disaster you have created? Why would you do that?” Still lost as to what upset him, Anna stammered out a
question for him to clarify the situation. He pulled up an article, on his phone, from an entertainment column and handed it to her. She read quickly the headline accusing Gabe of negligence and being the cause of his son’s ‘life threatening’ injuries. Gabe’s unnamed fiancé was the source for the seriousness of Sean’s condition and the cause for concern regarding his safety with his father. Anna looked up in horror as it began to dawn on her what had happened. “I didn’t say anything. I acted pleasant and happy like you said I should be with the press. I told them Sean would be ok and that I wasn’t your fiancé and then I walked away. I would never…I don’t know why…how could they do this?” “Why would you talk to them at all? My attorney just informed me Sean’s mom has filed papers to contest custody based on my ‘negligence.’ You could have just cost me everything.” He spat back at her. “I didn’t say anything. I said he was fine, just a bump on the head. I said I wasn’t your fiancé and then I walked away.” Desperately, she tried to make him understand, “You told me to be nice to your fans and the press. I was tired and they jumped on me as I left the hospital. What was I supposed to do?” “They did jump on her, Sue and I saw it,” John came to her defense.  “Did you hear what she said?” Gabe asked him and John shook his head no. “We were in the car, too far away, but why would she do anything to hurt you or Sean?” John asked Gabe trying to calm him down. “It doesn’t matter if she tried or not, the fact is she did it and it’s a disaster,” Gabe, although still angry, no longer yelled.
He turned abruptly and walked over to Sean. He scooped him up and headed to the stairs. Half way up they met Chris who was headed down to find out what all the shouting was about. Sean asked him to come with them and as much as Gabe didn’t want anything around which reminded him of Anna, he relented to the look in Sean’s eyes and permitted Chris to accompany them. His footfalls pounded heavily up the stairs. He knew he shouldn’t have yelled, but he felt so afraid and exhausted it was the only response he could muster. She may not have wanted to cause him issues, but her loose tongue already caused a multitude of problems. Gabe treasured his full custody and to have a fight on his hands because of a stupid accident and a loud mouth blonde  infuriated him. Why didn’t she know how to handle them? Why couldn’t she have said nothing, smiled, and walked on? Why did she even have to be there in the first place? My parents should have been there, not her. Anna, downstairs, felt completely floored by what had just happened. How could her short answers have been twisted into the story which appeared on the website? Through all these months, she didn’t even know anything about Sean’s mom or her life. Gabe had strictly avoided any discussion of her or their custody arrangement. Knowing how difficult it would be to lose Chris, she accepted Gabe’s fear as justified, just not justified being angry with her for it. She leaned against the counter, her elbows resting on it and her head in her hands, “I’m not the one that made up lies. I don't know how to fix this. How can they write things that are so untrue? Why is he blaming me? He's got to understand. I'm so sorry.”  She mumbled to herself, not noticing those standing around
her eavesdropping on her spilling emotions. The hardest part of the situation seemed she would usually turn to Gabe for solutions but he was the one she couldn’t talk to. Gabe stopped short as he entered his bedroom. Chris had decorated it with posters and balloons to celebrate Sean’s return. Gabe resisted the urge to tear down the papers taped to the wall which contained words in Anna’s handwriting. He knew how much that would disturb Chris. Sean delighted that they had gone to so much trouble just for him. Everyone felt the thick tension in the house and Anna escaped the kitchen to hide in her room for a few minutes. A flood of tears she was unprepared for erupted as soon as she closed the bedroom door. The sanctuary which had seemed so peaceful suddenly became a reminder of the man who had so cruelly accused her of wrong doing. A long while later she emerged to wash away the evidence of her emotional explosion. Returning to the kitchen, she continued working on dinner in an effort to keep her mind off of Gabe. The chattering about their argument had long since completed and Mary and Sue were cutting apples for pies. Anna walked in silently and began rolling out rolls and placing them in the baking dish. Her mom walked behind her and rubbed her back. Sue smiled at her and she knew they didn’t judge her despite what Gabe accused. Soon the kitchen and whole house smelled of turkey, baking bread, and apple and pumpkin pies. When Anna asked about Chris, Doug told her he stayed upstairs with Sean. She only nodded in response. Adam came in the kitchen to see if he could help and Rose
assigned him to stir the gravy while it came to a boil. By the icy stares and wide berth he gave Anna, she knew he sided with Gabe and blamed her completely. The table was set and piled with food. Doug went upstairs to tell Gabe dinner was ready. They heard two sets of steps coming down the stairs, and Gabe emerged carrying Sean. Sean was not yet strong enough to walk up and down but Gabe wanted him with the rest of the group for dinner. Gabe sat at the head of the table and Anna hid on the side near the other end. She wanted to be far away, but not directly in his sight lines. Matt sat down next to her. Chris sat next to Sean. The others gathered and Gabe began to speak. “This year I have a lot more than usual to be grateful for. Two days ago I thought I lost you,” he spoke to Sean, “and I couldn’t imagine my life without you,” he added in an icy, accusatory tone of voice to no one in particular. “I am reminded that family is the most important thing, and friends who have been with me for a long time,” he looked at Adam, Matt, Jayne, and Rana, pointedly avoiding the others. “The whole meal would be cold if we each shared, so let’s just have a blessing and dig in.” Doug offered a prayer, but Anna felt Matt moving next to her stealing a bite of roll. After the ‘Amen’, dishes were passed in all directions and the plates were piled with all variety of Thanksgiving goodies. Matt kept Anna and the others around him laughing with his jokes and antics. Anna finally relaxed. They all complained they were too stuffed to move, but the delicious taste kept them glued to their plates. One by one they finished and carried the dishes to the sink. The dishwasher loaded, all the containers of food were filled and placed in the refrigerator. Only the pots and pans remained, but they would have to wait until
everyone had digested enough so that standing upright no longer posed a challenge. An hour later Rose offered to dish up desert. She pulled small desert plates from the cupboard and started slicing pies and adding ice cream. Gabe had returned to his room with Sean and Chris, so Doug carried plates up to them.  Doug heard Gabe's phone ring as he got to the top of the stairs. The door opened and Gabe stepped out onto the landing. Doug showed him the plates of pie and raised one to offer it to his son. Gabe shook his head but motioned to the room. Gabe heard squeaks of delight as Doug presented his offerings to the boys and they eagerly chose their favorite flavor. Doug suggested that after eating the pie Chris should probably sleep in his mom's room. Sean would not get the rest he needed if he stayed up all night playing with his friend. Gabe overheard the suggestion and agreed it was probably the best plan. He'd make sure Sean got to sleep early that night. Doug left the third plate of pie on the desk and stepped out the door. Gabe stood staring at an arrangement of family pictures on the wall with his back to the  stairway. “If they don't see her again, the media will die down. As for the legal case, do whatever it takes. We won't be able to do anything until after the holiday weekend, so we'll talk Monday.” A long pause indicated the speaker spoke while Gabe listened, but then responded, “I am so mad at her I don't even want to see her at all. I wish she would fall off the face of the earth and not come back. It's not like she's ever been anything but a drain on me anyway. She was nice to look at, but not worth much else.” As Doug walked past his son he locked eyes with Anna who came up the stairs. Obvious she had heard Gabe's comments. Tears
filled her eyes and she turned to hurry away, as far away as she could. Nothing Doug could do or say would erase the venom in his son's voice, so he simply walked downstairs and embraced his wife. He had a feeling the situation might get a lot worse before it got better.
Chapter 14
The next morning, Sean awoke, slowly got up, and dressed himself before his dad crawled out from under the covers. The sun threw squares of light across the striped bedroom rug. Gabe insisted Sean wait while he took the time to shower and dress before heading down to breakfast. He still feared Sean walking down the stairs without a steady hand beside him. Gabe knew he was being annoyingly overprotective, but he had not yet gotten past the terror of almost losing Sean. It shattered him to think of his life without his son and he wouldn't take any chances. The main floor was busy with family, friends, and kids filling nearly every corner. The chaos dimmed as Gabe stepped down off the last step. He looked around to see why it suddenly got quiet. The aroma of bacon hit him and he dismissed it as slight paranoia. He aimed straight for the kitchen. The kitchen was empty, but a plate of bacon sat on the counter, with several packets of instant oatmeal next to it. Gabe
went to the cupboard to pull out two earthenware bowls for the oatmeal. Sean went into the living room to look for Chris. Sean found Adam and Doug sitting in the living room discussing Adam's plans to return to LA later that evening. Jayne and Rana didn't want to be stuck in all the traffic headed south along I-5 after the long weekend. Jayne claimed that entertaining children for seven hours was a big enough challenge without turning it into a ten hour trip. The only thing left on their agenda was a few hours at the casino. Instead of interrupting, Sean went to ask his grandma if she knew where Chris had gone. She sat next to the window whispering to Sue who sat close in the other chair. “Grandma, do you know where Chris is? He wasn't in his room and I don't see him down here.” Glancing toward the kitchen nervously, Rose answered, “Sean, honey, Chris, his mom and grandparents left early this morning. Matt drove them home. They said to tell you good-bye.” She tried to sound casual, as though it was completely understandable they would up and leave without notice. “Dad, they're gone!” Sean yelled breathlessly as he ran back to his father in the kitchen. He wobbled a little as he came to a stop, further evidence that he hadn't fully recovered. “Who's gone?” Gabe asked, worried about his son being so upset. “Chris and Anna and his grandpa and grandma.” Sean shook slightly. “No, they wouldn't have just left. They might be in their room or outside,” Gabe offered; he felt sure Sean misunderstood. “Grandma told me they left. Matt drove them. They're gone! Why are they gone?” Sean practically shouted the last question.
Gabe looked around frantically. His mom heard the commotion and walked toward him. The look on her face confirmed what Sean had said. Everyone in both rooms stopped to watch Gabe's reaction. “How could she have left? Why would she leave? Matt drove them?” Gabe questioned himself more than his mom, but he desperately wanted the answers too. Rose walked toward him and put her hand on his forearm. Before she could explain, Gabe's eyes narrowed and he uttered Matt's name like a curse word. “If she wants him, she's welcome to him.” He spat out the words as if he could cleanse the thought from his mind. Without waiting to hear any excuses, he stomped toward the stairs and retreated to the safety of his own room. He kicked a pair of shoes laying in his way near the door. When they didn't move far enough, he picked them up and threw them toward the closet. Socks soon followed. He pulled the blankets down on Sean's bed and straightened the flannel sheets. Ever since boyhood, cleaning helped calm the inner beast whenever he became upset or angry. He wasn't normally a fastidious person, in fact, a housekeeper was one of the first luxuries he splurged on as an adult with a steady income. Creating order in the world around him gave him a productive out let for his physical need to move. It was an exterior accomplishment of comfort when inside he felt all chaos and upheaval. The beds were made, the shoes placed on the shelf properly, and socks deposited in the hamper. Gabe found Chris' hat abandoned under a corner of the bed and it made his heart jump. His ire rose again, but he couldn't be mad at Chris. His mother, Anna, caused so much pain, not Chris.
A few more papers were thrown in a drawer and as quickly as he started, he lost interest in straightening. Abandoning his first attempts to feel better, he stomped back down stairs. He could feel the stares as he grabbed his coat and gloves, then slammed the front door behind him. Rose turned toward her husband with a worried look as they heard the snowmobile engine roar to life. She turned back to her grandson and wrapped her arms around him to assure him it would be alright. Matt! Seriously? How could she leave with him? After the kiss at the hospital, I can't believe she is really so fickle! Did she think she had lost her chance with me, so she would hook up with him? Maybe she's not the woman I thought she was. Maybe she's like every other fame hunting, gold digging girl out there. All these months spent together and as soon as things get a little rocky she bails? Did she fake our friendship the whole time? Was she ever really my friend or was it always just what she could get out of it, what was best for her? Sean is going to be devastated. I don't want him around her. How could my parents let her leave? Why didn't anyone wake me? Her parents didn't talk her out of it? Adam and Jayne didn't do anything? Rana...well, Rana probably packed her bags for her. At least Rana has been consistently around for years even though I haven't given in to her advances. That's loyalty, always coming around even though there's no chance of success. Maybe I should be taking a second look at Rana. She's smart, beautiful, cultured, and hangs in the same circles. I could do a lot worse. Thoroughly cold, Gabe returned to the house much calmer, on the outside at least. He tried to ignore the hollow gaping wound in his chest and engaged in small talk. Adam, Jayne, and Rana had left for the casino and the girls were babysitting again. Uncle Jack and Doug were engrossed in an impossible jig
saw puzzle of various hundreds of colored glass marbles. Rose and Jenny were in town hitting a few small shops and the indoor swap meet in a casino convention room. Sean had fallen asleep watching a movie. “I want to fly home early tomorrow morning,” Gabe told his dad. “I want to get Sean home as soon as possible. If there are going to be any complications from his injury I want it taken care of down there.” Doug simply nodded. “I'll go let Sue and John know we are leaving. They, all,” he motioned upstairs toward the spare rooms, “can stay as long as they want, but I'm out of here.” It suddenly occurred to him that thoughts of her were driving him from his home, which only angered him more. He considered staying just to prove she didn't affect his plans. He realized it would be even more immature to go back on his plans just to spite her, so he continued the preparations to leave. Sean stirred from his nap and sleepily followed his dad over to the smaller cabin to break the bad news. Sue and John were understandably sad he was abruptly leaving. He could tell from their reaction they had both been informed of Anna's covert departure. Gabe offered to make dinner that night, more to keep his mind busy than anything else. He and Sue discussed a menu. She offered to keep Sean company while Gabe ran into town for the groceries he needed. As Gabe shut the front door to Sue and John's house, Sean immediately turned to question Sue about why Anna and Chris left. “Sue, what would make them leave like that? And why is my dad so mad about it? I would think he would be worried that something went wrong, instead of being mad.” Sean struggled to
understand. Bob answered him, “Buddy, sometimes when people get to be best friends, they expect more of each other. Your dad thinks he's been hurt by something Anna did. Anna got her feelings hurt when he got mad at her. I'm sure with a little time to cool off, they will both patch it up and be friends again in no time.” Sean smiled and said he hoped so. “Chris is my best friend too. I don't think he could ever do anything that would make me mad enough to not be his friend.” “That's because you would never do anything either to make him not want to be your friend,” Sue winked at him and rubbed his shoulder. “Sometimes, we adults are not as smart as our kids.” Hours later, dinner finished and everyone but Gabe and Doug left the table. Doug leaned toward his son treading lightly as he asked, “Gabe, have you calmed down a little about Anna?” Gabe shrugged and nodded slightly. “Why, what's up?” “You have plenty of reasons to be mad. I just think you crossed the line when you called her a drain and said you wished you never met.” “What?!?” Gabe questioned. “When did I ever say that to her?” “Not to her, about her,” his dad responded a little taken aback by his sons strong surprise. “When? Even with all of this, I wouldn't say that about her,” Gabe wracked his brain thinking of what he had said that could be so misconstrued. “You were on the phone in the hallway when I brought up the pieces of pie. You said you wished she would fall off the earth. She came up the stairs behind you and heard what you said. That's why she left.” Doug watched to make sure he wasn't upsetting his
son further, but making the point that Gabe had gone too far. “I..I..I wasn't talking about her. I was talking about Katrina. The fact she thinks she can walk back in and take away custody is unbelievable. I wish she would just stay gone.” Gabe's mind ran a mile a minute judging the consequences of this misunderstanding. “No wonder she left. What do I do?” Gabe was mostly talking to himself. “I can't forgive her for the mess she's made. Speaking to those reporters was just stupid. I need people around me I can count on. I am not going to talk to her. If she wants to apologize, then she can call me, and I'll explain what went wrong.” Doug's hope of a peaceful resolution disappeared as quickly as dinner the night before. He considered his son's stubbornness and Anna's pride would keep them apart when the best possible thing for either of them is being together. Hopefully with time cooler heads would prevail and it would work itself out. Rose interrupted both men's thoughts when she walked in and held out her hand to take the dishes. Gabe handed the plate to his mom. “It's only fair since you cooked, we clean,” Rose insisted. “I think I may get you annoyed more often. When you are trying to keep your mind off your feelings, you make a fine meal.” Only his mom could get away with teasing him like this. Gabe threw his napkin at Rose, hitting her on her backside as she walked away. He smiled for the first time that day.
Chapter  15
Filming the last few episodes before the season break, filled the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Reruns air, so the filming done during this time can be shown throughout January. Gabe immersed himself in his role, deftly ignoring reminders of anything related to Anna. Not until Sunday afternoon did he have the slightest pang of sadness. Adam, Jayne, and Matt came over for dinner, but Anna and Chris were noticeably absent. One day led to another, but Sean asked several times about Chris and when he would see him next. After two weeks, Sean sat Gabe down to “make it clear” whatever was going on between him and Anna should not affect his friendship with Chris and Gabe needed to figure out how to get them together. Gabe admitted Sean had a point, the problem belonged to him and Anna, not their boys. He agreed to allow Sean to contact Chris and set up a day to hang out. He would also enable the chat feature on a few games they played together so they could continue
to talk. The boys made plans to hang out after school. Monday afternoon Sean happily knocked on Anna's door delivered by his aunt Rebecca. Anna and Rebecca met for the first time. Anna opened the front door filled with trepidation Rebecca would be angry and judge her for the problems with Gabe. Surprisingly, Rebecca greeted her nicely and the two started to chat. Anna felt a pull to ask about Gabe, but couldn't bring herself to form the words. Rebecca could tell Anna was anxious to know, but didn't want to reveal more than her brother would be comfortable with. The custody fight would appear in the tabloids, but Anna knew any reporting usually consists of half truths, anonymous sources, and the personal slant of the reporter themselves. After a few minutes, Rebecca left with the agreement that she would stop by and pick Sean up later that evening after she visited a friend in Orange County. Anna breathed a sigh of relief when she closed the door. She realized she held her breath the whole time, because she worried about saying something stupid or emotional to his sister. Anna went in to check on the boys before getting back to work stripping a dresser of its paint and finish.  It was an order for Christmas and needed to be completed shortly. She busily worked on the dresser, the sander covered up the sound of her phone. Chris brought it out to the patio, waving to get her attention. She turned off the sander and answered the phone with a cheery “hello.” “Hi, Anna, it's Matt Bishop.” A smooth voice announced through the speaker. Anna almost jumped back in surprise. “Is there something wrong? What's going on?” Anna sputtered out.
“No, nothing is wrong. I just thought I might call and see how you are doing.” Matt sounded casual. “Oh, ok, I'm fine. Still working, still being a mom. How are you?” Anna answered uncertain of the reason for the call. Matt responded that he was fine and then launched into a description of various parties and work related events he attended recently. Anna struggled to pay attention, distracted by the project in front of her. Suddenly Matt stopped talking and Anna panicked because she knew he expected a response, but she didn't know what he had asked her. “I'm sorry, Matt, what?” then she lied, “the kids came in to ask me something and I missed that.” Her shoulders sunk as she said the words out loud. “I was mentioning, now that you are Gabe are not busy together, maybe you would like to get out for some real adult time. There is a premier this Friday that might be fun. Lots of big names and flowing alcohol.” Matt tried to tempt her. “Well, I don't drink,” Anna tried to think of an excuse, but then reconsidered. She did need to get out and even if she had to spend the evening with Matt, who could be charming, it was better than nothing. “But, I've never been to a premiere so it should be exciting.” “Great, I'm so glad you'll come with me. The after party will go well into the night, so you should probably plan to have Chris sleep over somewhere,” Matt explained. Anna thought of the last moments on her porch after their last date and Matt's desire to have Chris elsewhere. A feeling of trepidation crept up her chest, but she swallowed it down and ignored her instincts. Matt called Gabe immediately after hanging up with Anna.
“Hey, I just thought I'd let you know, I'm not going to tag along with you on Friday. I've got a date, so you might want to find one too.” Matt's tone begged Gabe to ask who he was bringing. When Gabe didn't take the bait, Matt added slyly, “Anna said she's always wanted to go to a premiere. All the famous people and the partying.” Gabe's heart tightened as he heard her name and thought of her out with Matt. He could imagine Anna would be beautiful for the event, but the after party was hardly her scene. Maybe I didn't really know her at all. Maybe she was just pretending around me. Memories of small, sincere moments popped into his head, but they didn't fit into his new opinion of her. He dismissed them. She must have just been putting on a show. After all isn't that what I do for a living? Acting isn't that hard once you discover how to channel it within yourself. That's what she is, a very alluring actor. Even after finishing the call with Matt, Gabe continued to stew with anger. The worst part hit him, without Matt, he would be on his own. He needed a date. Who could I ask with such short notice? Someone who will make the statement that I have moved on and don't care about her anymore. His mind filtered through all the women he knew. Unable to think of anyone he really wanted to take, he called Jayne. “Jayne, I need a date for a Friday night premiere. Someone hot.” Gabe blurted out as soon as she said hello. She was taken aback by his attitude. Of course he preferred attractive women, but he didn't focus on looks over substance. Hot being his only qualification, she knew something was up and told
him, “Spill it.” Gabe elaborated his plan and Jayne began to understand. She had never completely warmed up to Anna, but the venom in Gabe's voice told her more than anything exactly how he had felt about her. Finally, Jayne suggested he take Rana. Jayne knew that Rana had been in love with Gabe for years; dating lots of other men, but comparing them all to Gabe. Rana would gladly go and she would be hot. If Anna had any wounds, Rana would definitely be throwing in salt.
Friday night Anna quickly put the finishing touches on the gown she had made for herself. She knew she needed something nice and couldn't afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a single dress. Her whole wardrobe wasn't worth that much. This new dress fit her beautifully and she had an old pair of gold, heeled sandals to match. A touch up of gold craft paint covered the scuffs. Chris was spending the night at Rachel's house and Matt would be there to pick her up in an hour or so. Regret had hit her almost as soon as she hung up the phone, but she tried to ignore the feeling and focus on the fun. It would be a great night and a new experience. Even in Southern California where an invite is more likely it's still a unique experience. She fiddled with small things around the house waiting impatiently, but almost hoping Matt would stand her up. She jumped as the doorbell rang and walked slowly to answer the door. Matt stood there dressed in a suit in the casual high style that only men can pull off. He kissed her hello and stepped inside. She grabbed her purse and wrap off the couch as he asked, “Is Chris here?”
She shook her head and explained Chris was gone. Matt slipped his arms around her waist and with his lips to her ear whispered, “That's awfully tempting. We could arrive late?” His suggestive tone unnerved her for a moment. She held it together long enough to softly push him away and answer him in what she hoped was a calm voice, “I've never been to a premiere. I don't want to miss a second.” She knew she should put a stop to his imagination, but she didn't. She had successfully out maneuvered his expectation last time and felt confident she could do the same again. If she said something now, he would probably call off the whole evening and she was determined to see it through. Traffic was light and it didn't take long before they were in a short procession of cars down the block from the theater. At the corner a parking attendant approached Matt's window. Matt exited the car and walked over to Anna's side to help her out. The attendant took the car and they walked down the short sidewalk toward a red carpet lined with photographers and a few reporters doing interviews. They were only stopped once for a picture and an assistant announced “215-Matt Bishop and date.” Matt smiled at the man and tried to steer Anna away, but the photographer asked Anna who she was wearing. Anna shrugged and confessed it was her own creation from a standard fabric store pattern. The woman stood agape and muttered something into the recorder then turned to photograph the next arrivals.  The theater was slightly more than half full and Matt motioned to their seats about two thirds of the way back. The more famous invitees and those who actually worked on the film would sit in front. Anna excused herself to visit the ladies room before they
climbed into the row of seats. She took her time and double checked her reflection before returning to her date. As she approached the row she noticed Rana. The tall, stunning woman shone between two shorter gentlemen, the three of them laughing at the comments of another woman standing with them. Careful to avoid Rana's eye, Anna attempted to walk to her seat unnoticed. So focused on eluding Rana, she did not notice herself walking directly into Gabe who had taken advantage of her absence to converse with Matt. Gabe mechanically walked toward her, still replaying his conversation with Matt. Lost in his thoughts he attempted to steer around her without paying attention to who she was. At the last moment he looked up, a generic smile pasted on his face to make pleasantries with whomever he was passing. He caught her eye and his face fell immediately. His heart pounded so loudly he was sure passing people could hear it as well. He was caught, unable to think what to do. His mind and body lurched between wanting to hug her and wanting to run away. Rather than squeezing past each other in the aisle, Anna backed up a few feet to the main walkway. Gabe wanted to escape, but seemed unable to stop staring in her eyes. Finally, she reached the end of the row and tripped slightly against the arm rest of the last chair. He caught her and held her steady, but quickly released her as though burned by the touch. Rana, noticing the exchange stepped quickly over to Gabe and wrapped her hands around his arm. “Oh, there you are, Honey,” she purred toward Gabe with a small scowl aimed at Anna. Anna's eyes opened wide while she considered Rana's new pet name for him. He glanced at Rana wondering why the sudden
possessiveness, but decided to go along with it in front of Anna. Putting his hand over Rana's he directed her away from where Anna stood still completely confused and anxious. Anna watched them take their seats while she considered running back to the restroom to hide. As she took a step away from the aisle the lights flickered off then on as a signal to be seated. The more honored guests were arriving and needed aisles clear to find their places. Anna made her way to Matt and sat down, saying nothing. “It will be about a half hour until it starts. We'll have a good view of those entering,” Matt explained. He then launched into a narrative about various people already seated and a few of those yet to find their seats. Anna listened halfheartedly. She had never been impressed by fame, so his gossip about nose jobs, eye lifts, and who dated whom was hard to follow as her mind wandered. Finally, the MC stood to welcome them all. He spoke about the Director and Executive Producer. He cracked a few jokes about the leading lady and her less famous co-star. Ultimately, he motioned two movie company executives to the front to accept thanks for making and promoting the film. The lights dimmed and the show began. Unsure of the genre of movie, Anna was surprised to find herself enthralled in a disaster type film based in Coastal California. One natural phenomenon after another worked against the citizens of a small beach town. The theme became the success of the main character in overcoming these challenges. She, of course, ends up in the arms of the handsome young man thrown in her pathway by one of the various disasters. More speeches and thank you's followed the raising lights
after the credits rolled. Applause continued for several minutes as they saluted each others efforts. Those in the front rows were allowed to disperse before the back rows were released by the attendants manning each main aisle. “We have an invite to the after party at the hotel down the street,” Matt whispered to Anna as they sat waiting to be dismissed. “It's not an A-list party, but most of the B-list will be there.” Anna nodded, unsure who the B-list were, but willing to go along. Matt took her hand as they exited the theater and proceeded to the hotel. Several women stopped Matt to chat, Anna stood waiting to be introduced. They were all very beautiful, which made Anna slightly self conscious. They all discussed the previous weekend and common friends who drank too much and did some rather stupid things. Finally, Matt stopped the conversation long enough to introduce Anna and then they continued where they left off, all three of them laughing at their friends' expense. Several more people stopped Matt to chat as they walked the short distance to the hotel. Anna  focused on the small gold strap that was rubbing a blister on her right big toe. A hotel employee directed them to the party in the suite of one of the actors.  They heard the music as soon as the elevator doors opened. It was easy to follow the noise and people to an open door leading to the sitting area of the suite. The room was almost void of chairs and the crowd stood conversing in small groups. Every guest had a drink and a few already seemed inebriated. A corner of the room was packed with people gyrating to the beat of a blasting stereo.  Matt steered Anna toward a bar set up across from the front door. “Can I get just a coke?”Matt asked “and a beer?” The bar
tender passed him a glass and a bottle in exchange for a few folded bills. The short man Rana had been speaking to at the theater approached them to say hello to Matt. They spoke about the production of the movie and several mutual acquaintances involved in it. Anna people watched as they spoke, not listening at all to their conversation. Matt touched her arm, “Anna is a math tutor and a seamstress.” He directed his comment to the man, while looking at Anna to catch her attention. She turned and smiled at them nodding in agreement. A short discussion of changes in the federal education program was interrupted by a young man who took exception to Anna's opinion. In a louder than necessary voice, he insisted that the government program was perfect exactly as created and should not be insulted by questioning its tenets. The man they were speaking to, Anna hadn't listened to his name or how he knew Matt, directed the slightly drunk antagonist to another part of the room with a wink and an excuse to Matt and Anna. A group of four women quickly replaced him in occupying Matt's attention. After two hours of socializing and a few minutes of dancing Anna excused herself to get some air. The open front doors of the hotel allowed a soft ocean breeze to blow into the glistening lobby. A few people who had been introduced through the evening said good bye to Anna as they left. She smiled and waved back completely unsure who they were. Returning  to the suite party, Anna was nearly over run by a tall, slinky woman. Only after she stomped off in her extremely high heels did it dawn on Anna that the woman was Rana.  Anna looked
around, involuntarily scanning to spot Gabe. He didn't appear any where. She made her way back toward the party and Matt met her before she reached the door. He suggested that she was tired and he would take her home if she was ready.
After the movie ended Gabe had taken his time leaving. He knew that Matt and Anna were seated a few rows back and had no interest in any further confrontations with her.  Rana wrapped her arm around Gabe's as he introduced her to many of the actors and crew surrounding them. She purred hello to the men and innocently greeted the women. Gabe marveled at her ability to coyly gain the good graces of everyone she met. Almost an hour passed before they stepped outside and followed the crowd to the after party. They entered in a side door of the hotel that led to a small lobby and a set of elevators. The group piled in both lifts and were carried to the top floor. The doors opened directly into the living room. Soft music played in the background and a champagne fountain sat on a table surrounded by stemmed glasses. People were scattered throughout the various seating areas. The jovial mood helped Gabe relax and he eagerly spoke with several friends he hadn't seen in years. Rana dutifully hung on his arm and showed interest in each new person and discussion. She introduced Gabe to a few more up and coming actors he didn't yet know. Attentive without being possessive, charming without trying too hard. I don't think I've ever considered her as more than Jayne's friend. She certainly is beautiful, but I'm seeing tonight that she has a personality worth getting to know better.
As though reading his mind, Rana wrapped her arm around him, “Could we go for a walk?” Gabe agreed and they moved toward the elevator. A voice called across the room, “Are you leaving?” Gabe shook his head and answered, “No, we're just going out for a breather. We'll be right back.” Rana just smiled. Once alone in the elevator car, she pushed a floor button and then positioned herself against  him and linked her arms around his neck. Her face near his, he felt her breath on his lips before she kissed him. The sensation was far from unpleasant. Given his recent thoughts of her it was not difficult to return the kiss. The car came to a stop with a slow bounce. “Keep your eyes closed,” she said softly as she covered them with one hand and led him forward with the other. “No peeking.” she insisted as she removed her hand.  Gabe heard a slight shuffle against a door, then a beep and click as the handle unlocked. Against her wishes, he opened his eyes quickly to find her standing in the open doorway of a small suite. She tentatively held his hand and coaxed him forward. He took a step inside, but paused. All his senses were tuned into this seductive woman eagerly persuading him forward. Her finger tips ran up his arm. Her pouting lips ready to receive his. Desire lit her eyes. His whole body asked him to succumb. He wanted her, no doubt. Who wouldn't? But in the back of his head he had a reservation. He couldn't focus well enough to determine why he hadn't moved. Something inside him locked his feet to the floor and kept him from following her lead. Rana closed the gap between them, sliding her hand across his chest.  “Come on in, the bed is over here and I have a lovely
number to change into,” she tempted. “You don't have anything to worry about tonight. You don't have to be a dad, you get to just be a man.” His fogged brain cleared in an instant, triggered by the inadvertent word “dad.” Sean. I made him a promise. I can't do this. I have to tell her. I hope she's not too let down. “I can't,” he fumbled with the words. “It's ok, Gabe. You don't have any responsibilities tonight. Let me take care of you for a change,” Rana responded affectionately. “You don't understand. I made a promise. I can't. Not until I'm married.” Each sentence spilled out stilted and nearly incomprehensible.  “Married, no one said anything about being married. I want to spend time with you. I'm not asking for a commitment,” she attempted to alleviate his worry that she would expect too much. “I promised Sean that I wouldn't be with a woman until I am married. It was his idea of a sort of personal chastity pledge. I promised him.” He met her eyes and held them begging her to understand and support him. She laughed, “How do you suppose you're going to get a wife if you aren't willing to have a real adult relationship with her? That's just crazy!” Her visage displayed disbelief and her hope it was all just a joke. Slowly her face slipped, “He's a kid, and a promise like that is just stupid. You can't possibly mean you're going to follow through with it?” Her voice rose a little, she was clearly frustrated by the idea.
“I do intend to keep my promise. I know it will get in the way of dating and it's totally unexpected, but I think the right woman would understand. I think you'd support me in this.” He was slightly insulted at her tone. Now she was practically shouting as she envisioned her romantic plans evaporating before her eyes. “Are you kidding me? You can't be serious!  I paid for this room for you! You going to pass on all this,” she waved her hand up and down her body, “in order to keep a ridiculous promise to a stupid little boy who doesn't have enough sense to realize that adults have sex because they are supposed to?” He focused all his effort to not shout back, “Stupid little boy? That's my son you're talking about. What I do or do not promise him is none of your business and I really don't care about your opinion of it.” She pushed him hard and he hit the wall behind him. Anger flamed in his eyes; Gabe backed farther into the room, distancing himself further from her. She came at him again, but he put his hand up to ward her off. “Don't touch me,” she spat, “How dare you lay a hand on me.” Now screaming at him, a slew of profanity littered through her words. She ended her tirade, “I hope you enjoy your celibacy, you'll never get this chance again!” Rana turned violently, slammed the door against the entry wall, and stormed down the hall. Gabe stood there breathing deeply, calming his frantically pounding heart. He kicked himself, for allowing this to happen. I didn't mean to hurt her, but how better could I have handled it? I dodged a bullet
there, though. Imagine a relationship with someone who would overreact like that? He shook his head in disbelief and emotional exhaustion. He picked up the dropped key card from the floor. Closing the door behind him, he walked slowly to the elevator, glancing back over his shoulder, still unsure what just happened. He approached the concierge and clicked the key against the desk. “I'd like to pay for this room,” Gabe mumbled. He didn't remember the room number, but after a few minutes the woman returned his credit card and handed him a receipt. He walked quietly out the door before recalling the room full of people upstairs expecting his return. He returned to the concierge and requested the key back. Then, he requested she call the top floor to allow him entrance back into the suite. A guest service employee keyed the code into the elevator keypad to permit his trip upstairs. Running his fingers through his hair, he blew hard and steeled himself to return and make nice, just long enough to finish his new mission. He had met a young man during the filming of his TV show. He played a small character for half a season. He left to take the opportunity to work on the film that screened that night. Gabe knew he was recently married and as soon as the doors slid apart he scanned the room. Off in a corner with his new bride, a producer and a few others, the young man seemed to be soaking in the company. Pulling him aside, Gabe handed him the key card and whispered the suite number. “I hope you enjoy it and remember to always help others when you are able.” Gabe said good bye to most of the room, strolled to his car, and went home to his empty house and his empty bed.
Matt pulled into Anna's driveway and parked askew behind her car. Turning off the engine he exited the car, then hurried to the other side and opened her door for her in a gallant sweep of his arm. Anna swung her legs out and he grabbed her hand to pull her standing. She smiled, grateful for his gentlemanly attention. Shutting the door he placed his hand on the small of her back directing her to the front door. Anna knew this was coming and had yet come up with a plan to kindly reject any advances. She stepped up the porch and fumbled to find her keys. She stopped short of the door and unconsciously drew a line with her toe. Hoping to find the words, she looked up at him and smiled. He wrapped his arms around her and gently kissed her neck. Her heart sank. She pulled away slightly; he responded by pulling her closer. His mouth closed on hers, unconsciously she responded, but then coming back to herself, she twisted her head away. “Matt, I don't...,” she struggled to get the words out as he tried harder to kiss her. “I thought we were on the same page, Anna,” he breathed out the words as his mouth moved across her cheek. “I want to date you, because I like you, I want you. We could be good together, Anna, just relax and enjoy.” Anna pushed hard against his chest and squirmed attempting to escape his grasp. If she couldn't see any future, she certainly wasn't going to “relax and enjoy.” He released her suddenly and she fell backward against the house.  Matt took a deep breath and shook his head; the look in his eyes surprised her, pity. “Anna, I'm not surprised. I knew this would
happen, but I'm sorry. I thought we could have something good together.” Matt's matter-of-fact tone made her question her resolve. “I asked you out tonight in order to let you get to know me better. I thought that maybe if you saw the real me you might take a chance.” Anna watched him closely, trusting he was being honest. He continued, “Just once I wanted you to look at me the way I've seen you look at Gabe. Seeing the two of you tonight proves nothing has changed. I'm not sure I'll wait until you give up on something that's never going to happen with him.” Matt grabbed her hand, she stiffened, but he kissed it, turned and walked away. “Good night.” Anna finally found her breath and turned shakily into the house. She fell into the shower and then into bed. She turned on an old movie while she waited for sleep to come.
Chapter 16
Anna stirred the garlic so it wouldn't burn before she added the pieces of squash for dinner. Chris walked into the kitchen and watched her for a moment before asking, “Mom, what should I say to my friend so he isn't sad about losing his dog?” “Did the dog run away or did the dog pass away?” she asked absent-mindlessly dishing rice onto a plate. “Both, the dog got out and then got hit by a car. Sean is really sad and I don't know what to say to make him feel better,” he responded softly. Her attention suddenly focused on her son's words. “Torti? Sunshine?” Chris nodded and answered, “Torti. It happened this afternoon in front of their house.” Anna's stomach sank. “Gabe has got to be beside himself. He loves that dog.” No longer focusing on dinner, Anna turned off the stove and scooped the mixture onto two plates, then threw the pan in the sink. “Chris, you were talking to Sean on the computer. Does that
mean he's at home?” Chris nodded again. “Go get your shoes on, we're going to go see him. We'll take dinner with us.” She slid the food off the plates into a plastic container, added more rice and sealed the lid. Slipping on her flip flops, she grabbed her purse and they went out the door. The drive took 45 minutes even in the carpool lane and Anna had doubts flowing through her mind the whole time. Would it help to go to them? Would he ignore her or shut the door in her face? Was he still angry? The previous weeks of the holiday season had passed with barely any contact. The boys met to trade gifts, but nothing more. Anna ended up returning the series of old westerns she had bought for Gabe's Christmas gift. Unable to face it, Gabe simply stuffed the vintage mixing bowls he had intended for Anna into a box in the back of a spare closet. Life had settled in to a new routine. For the first couple weeks Sunday afternoons and Friday nights were empty, but now, almost three months later, they had become accustomed. Anna prepared for the worst reaction from Gabe. She had no idea what he would think about her showing up on his doorstep, especially given the tragic reason she had come. She told herself that he might see her intentions were kind and allow them to help and comfort. Dinner would be cold, but she could heat it up. Chris slipped a book on CD into the stereo and they drove in silence as they listened to a fantastic tale of children spies running around the world looking for clues to their case. Focusing on the actor's voice distracted her from her worries. Anxious as she was to get there quickly, the distance slipped by way too rapidly and soon she turned onto their street and stopped in front of the house she knew so well. Chris jumped out of the car and knocked on the door. She slowly stepped out of the car
while watching the door open. Her heart jumped into her throat and fell again as Sean rush out to hug his friend. The boys disappeared into the house and she forced herself to step, one foot in front of the other, until she reached the open wooden door. Gabe had secluded himself in his den all afternoon. Having shed some tears, he moved on to feeling empty and slightly sick to his stomach.  Sean burst through the door with Chris in tow. Seeing Chris standing there completely startled him, but that was nothing compared to Sean's news.  “I told Chris about Torti and he and his mom came to see us. Isn't that great?” Gabe managed a smile as the boys turned and ran into the other room. Sunshine followed close behind, perhaps afraid to lose one of them too. Gabe left his desk and walked cautiously to the front door. What is she doing here? Why has she come? Has she forgiven me for my stupid anger or is there some other reason she is here? He stopped abruptly when he saw her; she jumped back slightly when he appeared in the doorway. His face showed new lines and his expression strained to cover exhaustion and grief. “Sean told Chris about Torti and we wanted to come check on you guys.” She took a deep breath, stared at her shoes, and continued, “I brought dinner in case you haven't eaten.” Unsure of her motives, but terrified to lose the moment, he slowly reached out to her. He touched her shoulder and she moved toward him, falling into his embrace. His eyes filled with tears again, but in gratitude for a friend who cared enough to risk rejection and confrontation in order to comfort him. She felt warm salt water hit
the top of her head and she looked up at him before brushing the water drops from his cheek. He held her close again and then with an arm draped around her shoulder he guided her into the house and shut the door. They sat on the couch and Gabe took her hand in his, “Thank you for coming. I could use a friend today.” “I'm sure if Matt or Adam knew, they would have come too,” she responded, but he just shook his head. “It's just a dog. I texted them, but they haven't responded. It's no big deal.” Shrugging his shoulders he tried to brush off his emotions. “Torti was not 'just a dog,' he was part of your family, almost one of your kids. Goodness knows he listened better than either one of our boys,” she added with a wink. “Take time to mourn him appropriately.” Suddenly she jumped up and headed back outside explaining to a shocked Gabe that she forgot dinner in the car. She returned after a minute with two plastic containers and walked straight into the kitchen. Gabe stood by the island watching her pull plates from the cupboard as though she lived there. She scooped rice, veggies, and chicken onto each plate then heated it in the microwave. In the second container was lettuce, tomato, and carrot. Gabe pulled a bottle of dressing out of the fridge, then left to find the boys. Sean and Chris washed their hands and began to set the table by the time everything was heated. The four of them sat around the table, Sean grabbed Anna's hand and Chris' and announced it was his turn to pray. Gabe took Chris' other hand and Anna's and bowed his head. The simple declaration of gratitude for good friends and food and a plea to watch over a beloved pet who
Sean was sure now roamed the lawns and hills of heaven touched each heart. After “Amen” Chris blurted, “It's just like the first time we ate together at our house. All four of us, holding hands and praying, almost like a family.” Gabe looked at Anna, then glanced away, and repeated under his breath, “Yes, almost like a family.” Anna heard him mumble something, but wasn't sure she had heard correctly. During dinner they all fell easily back into their routine. Telling stories and catching up on all they had missed. Chris nearly fell out of his chair once because he was laughing so hard and Gabe was sure his abs would hurt the next morning. Every smile was a comfort and every joke or funny anecdote healed the hole that had developed over the past few months. Eventually, the boys went off to Sean's room and Anna started clearing dishes. Gabe wiped down the table and swept the floor. The silence became increasingly imposing, each one distracted by their own thoughts. At last Anna broke the deafening quiet, “I'm sorry. I never meant to do anything to hurt you or jeopardize Sean.” Gabe blurted out, “It was my fault for jumping all over you. I didn't mean to blame you.” He still stood across the room, the kitchen island forming a buffer between them. “My dad told me you overheard me on the phone that night. I wasn't talking about you. I was talking about Katrina. I never wanted to lose your friendship.” Anna made her way over to him and placed her hand on his arm. “Do you mind if I ask how things turned out with her claim?” Gabe motioned that they sit on the couch and launched into
the details of his custody fight. “In the end, Sean will stay with me. I don't blame Katrina. She left our son with me thinking he would be cared for and she heard in the tabloids that he wasn't. She doesn't really want him, but she doesn't want him to be mistreated either. The good result is that she may actually become a little more involved, now that she has met up with him again. I just wish she had chosen a better way to go about it.” Anna curled up against the couch arm, listening to him described all the court maneuvering and issues. She gratefully reflected that she had it easy when it came to visitation with her ex, he had rarely challenged her.  She moved the conversation along to plans for spring break and farther into the future summer vacations. This summer Gabe and Sean would follow the normal pattern of the Fourth of July at the cabin and then soon after head to the little house in Kauai for a month. Anna and Chris were invited to come to the cabin again if it worked into their schedule. Anna felt unsure about returning to a place that symbolized all that had gone so completely wrong between them. They caught each other up on work projects past, present, and future. Gabe had completed a holiday romance film and currently worked on his series again. The cast waited to hear if it would be picked up for another season. Anna looked casually at her watch, but double checked the time on the wall clock. Time had flown by and she and Chris needed to start home. The boys still had school tomorrow. Sean and Chris greeted them with groans and complaints as Anna slowly pushed open the bedroom door. “We have to go, Bud.” Anna told Chris. “It's late and you have school and I have work...and...Gabe has work and Sean has school tomorrow.” Turning to look at Gabe, she assured Chris that
they would be back to visit soon. “We can come on Sundays again, just like before,” Chris invited himself and Sean readily agreed. Gabe nodded enthusiastically and it was decided they would return a few days later. Anna walked to the car, followed by Gabe who hugged her good bye and kissed her cheek. She returned his smile as she stepped into the car. I'm so glad things can return to normal. We'll be right back to being friends just like we were before.  Flashing through Gabe's mind was the last time they were really together, in the hospital, just before Sean awoke. He considered whether or not he really wanted to return to their regular friendship. Pushing it out of his head, he waved good bye and waved as they drove away.
Sunday afternoon took it's time arriving and it surprised Anna how excited she felt to spend the afternoon with Gabe and Sean. Leaving Church, they traveled directly toward Santa Monica. Sean ran out the front door before Anna had even switched the gear to park and Gabe walked toward her as she collected a bag of more comfortable clothing for them to change. He accepted the plate of brownies she made the night before. The boys ran down the hill, but Anna called Chris back to change out of his Church clothes. He would destroy his suit pants if she allowed him to run through the dirt and brush in the backyard. Instead of shorts, he changed directly into his swim trunks and Sean changed as well. With a few yells, they were off running. Gabe brought a couple glasses of ice water out to the patio and they sat in the shade to talk. He showed her pictures of where
they had filmed in Toronto. She showed off photos of an antique sofa she had restored. They fell easily back into the comfortable conversation of close friends. A knock on the glass door startled both of them and they turned to see Rose and Doug stepping onto the patio. Tears welled in Anna's eyes, she hadn't realized how much she had truly missed them. She sprang up to hug both of them before they joined the conversation at the table. Soon the boys were back and complaining of hunger.  Doug and Gabe threw the steaks on the grill. Rose and Anna went inside to put together a salad and something to drink. “I could not have been more surprised when Gabe told me you were coming over this afternoon,” Rose admitted. Anna explained how she had reacted to the news of Torti being hit by a car. She hadn't really thought it through and showed up at Gabe's house before she could talk herself out of it. “He was too scared to call you and apologize or explain because he was afraid you would stop Sean and Chris from being friends,” Rose confessed. “He's been beside himself about it since the day you left.” Anna just smiled, slightly uncomfortable at Rose divulging Gabe's secrets behind his back. Doug walked in, pressed himself to Rose's back, and wrapped his arms around her waist. He kissed her neck and she giggled. Anna genuinely smiled at them, thinking how cute it was that they were still so their affectionate after all these years. She wondered if she would ever have a relationship like theirs. A vision of Gabe ran across her thoughts and she quickly pushed it out. They had barely regained a friendship, she would not allow herself to consider anything more.  She focused on Rose and
Doug again, but watching them felt no less disconcerting than her own mind. She excused herself and went in search of the boys to remind them to wash up. She hadn't walked three steps when she heard Rose whisper, “It's clear she still loves him, so I guess there's hope.” Anna's stomach sank. She would have to do a better job of covering her feelings. If it was so clear to Rose and Doug, it couldn't be difficult for Gabe to miss. Gabe let the heat of the grill warm him for a minute. Sometimes physical discomfort will cover up emotion disturbances. He flipped over the steaks, all but one. He knew Anna liked her meat well done, but not burnt. It would take a few extra minutes for hers to be cooked to pleasure. He tried in vain to rid her from his thoughts. During the meal, Gabe and Doug discussed possible trips for spring break. Doug asked Anna about her plans and she explained that she and Chris would be camping for a few days in Southern Utah. She loved the red dirt and plateaus of Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. The desert was most beautiful in spring before the heat turned it into a miserable place to be. Sean piped up asking his dad if they couldn't go camping with Anna and Chris. Gabe started shaking his head, but briefly glanced over at her to see if she might be willing to let them tag along. She shrugged her shoulders and invited them all. She explained that she planned on camping in a wilderness area without the niceties of home. If they were willing to rough it, they were more than welcome. Even Rose agreed it would be enjoyable and the discussion delved into maps of the National Parks and packing lists as well as food lists. The boys ran off to jump in the pool, leaving the adults to
hash out the details for the last week of March. Once again, evening came too soon and all Gabe's guests needed to head toward home. He felt satisfied though at the opportunity to spend almost an uninterrupted week with Anna, Chris, Sean, and his parents. He thought about Torti and how much he hated the heat and rocks, always a water dog first and foremost. A pang hit his heart at the thought it might be a good thing that his beloved friend had passed on and wouldn't have to suffer through a week of camping.
Chapter 17
“Are we there yet?” Chris asked in a smart aleck tone. Anna aimed her flip flop at him and he ducked barely in time.  It bounced off the left arm he raised in protection and landed on Sunshine's head. The dog stirred in obvious disdain for whomever had disturbed her nap. Chris picked it up and threatened with a laugh, “I need a window open to throw this out.” Anna turned in her seat with a look that could kill if he dared destroy her precious foot wear. He just laughed at his mom and dropped her shoe on the floor. “Come and get it.” Doug slowed the car as he steered around a bend and started down a steep hill. They left civilization behind about a half hour earlier. Now they just needed to find a good place to camp, not too far from the road, but not too close to a water source where the mosquitoes would be thickest and chance of a flash flood the greatest. A flat clearing opened up and Doug stopped the car.
“What do we think everyone?” Doug asked opinions on the camping site. All the eyes in the car gazed at their surroundings and a chorus of responses agreed it was a decent place. Sunshine was the first one out of the car when the doors opened, but one by one everyone escaped to stretch their legs. Rose grabbed a roll of toilet paper and headed over to a crop of tall rocks as cover. Anna and Gabe walked around looking for the best place to set up the tents. Sean and Chris ran with Sunshine to the top of a hill. It didn't take long for the boys to discover that the piles of rocks all around them would echo and they took turns yelling all the strange calls they could imagine. The four adults worked to unload all the gear and set up tents around a central area. The “potty tent” was placed on the opposite side of camp from the fire pit where they would be cooking. Once the van was emptied, Rose folded down the two rows of seats and Doug laid out the air mattress on the floor of the van. He would inflate it when it was time to sleep. He and Rose had no intention of sleeping on the ground for several days, with or without an air mattress. With the basics set up, the group ventured down a hiking trail for an hour or so before turning back. The calm aliveness of the desert was among the most beautiful spaces Anna loved to enjoy. Gabe preferred the tree covered mountains, littered with streams, but he also appreciated the secret life of the plants and animals that lived where it seemed nothing could. Gabe squinted into the sunset appreciating the view from a small summit nearly back to camp. As the sun descended the colors of the landscape glowed. Purple plateaus met light blue skies which merged with orange flames leaping off the sun. A small gray lizard
scurried through the brush. Gabe rubbed his 5 o'clock shadow with the tips of his fingers, then reached down and took Anna's hand in his. She threaded their fingers together and continued walking side by side. Returning to camp, they hurried to prepare food for dinner and finish setting up the odds and ends before the light disappeared. Science has never been able to explain why food tastes better cooked over an open flame in the middle of nature. The steak grilled on a metal grate and the potatoes were wrapped in foil and baked in the coals of the fire. The sun fell behind the horizon as they enjoyed their feast. After dinner, the boys retired to the tent to play a card game and Rose and Doug started preparing for bed once the clean up was finished. Gabe pulled out a script he needed to read and Anna sat embroidering a set of flowers on the bottom of a skirt she had completed. A small bird flitted against the sky emitting a loud call to an unseen recipient. Sunshine lay at Anna's feet and she removed her shoes to run her feet down the dog's back. Sunshine reveled in the petting. One by one the stars appeared and the moon rose. Gabe finished the movie script and began to discuss the story with Anna, weighing the decision to accept a part. Playing the villain in a thriller, offered an appealing prospect. Pretending to be evil was always a little more fun. Since most diabolical men have two personae, the public and the private, it takes a larger range to pull off the illusion successfully. Eventually, they decided to call it a night, inciting groans of complaint from the boys who were still wide awake and eager to continue playing. “The sun will rise just before 6am tomorrow. If you stay up
any later you are going to be grumpy dwarfs tomorrow and I don't want to hear it,” Gabe explained. “Go brush your teeth while I inflate the mattresses. The air pump connected to the cigarette lighter of the car and the mattresses were quickly filled and made ready. The tent separated into two rooms with a vinyl divider, each side large enough to hold a queen air mattress. Anna laid out the sleeping bags, two on each bed, and threw pillows toward the far end of each bag. After brushing and washing and last minute trips to the bushes, (The males declared watering the foliage as one of the benefits of camping, so only Anna and Rose used the porta potty) each of them wriggled in to their beds. Sean and Gabe slept on one and a few feet away Anna and Chris on the other. The morning sunrise came quickly. The dark blue glitter changed in an instant to clear blue morning, decorated sparsely with thin, white clouds. Anna planned on hiking a different, longer route that day and wanted to start out before the heat crept up. Even in the spring, afternoon temperatures can reach dangerous levels. The boys spent the day catching lizards and insects and testing the echoes around each bend in the trail. Anna felt at home in this scenery and the warmth of the sun only added to the warmth of the colors surrounding her. Gabe reveled in each summit conquered and each added challenge along their path. The fun company and scenic peace provided all that Rose and Doug needed. Each day brought new adventures and way too soon four days had passed. The last evening of their vacation Sean and Chris packed away the dishes and cooking utensils in a tote. Anna wiped out the empty cooler, they would eat breakfast on the road
tomorrow. Gabe collected all the odds and ends that wouldn't be needed the next morning. Doug pulled out a metal basket attached to a long wooden handle ingeniously designed to pop popcorn over the fire. Rose melted butter in a cup, to pour over it. They all sat around the fire singing silly songs and making up goofy stories. A yawn nearly split Chris' head in half and Anna suggested he get ready for bed. A testament to how tired he felt, he didn't complain at all. Sean followed Chris without Gabe needing to say anything. The moon rose large and bright above a nearby ridge and Gabe called Sunshine to take a walk with him. Anna got the boys situated and wondered where Gabe had gotten off to. She spotted him only a small way away, up an incline. His back was to her and the trail while Sunshine sniffed off to the side. She had removed her shoes earlier and she started noiselessly up the hill, her feet accustomed to constant exposure didn't react to the sharp edges of rocks along the way. She sneaked up behind him, the noisy sounds of the desert covered her footsteps. She thrust her hands against his sides and moved her fingers slightly. He jumped when she tickled him, turning to grab her in a bear hug. She let out a little shriek as he returned the favor. “No, fair, you're not supposed to tickle me in revenge,” she fake pouted. “How is it not fair for me to do the same thing you did to me?” he asked incredulously. “I don't know, let me think of something. I'm sure it's not fair though!” she added with a coquettish smile. He tickled her slightly again and although she squirmed in his arms, he didn't let her go. Eventually, she stopped laughing and
they stood there for a moment listening to the peaceful movement of the insects and occasional small animal. His stomach tightened slightly as she placed her hand on his waist, then slid the other arm around him. He simply stared off toward the full moon. He tried to calm his breathing and racing heart beat. If I look at her I won't be able to stop myself kissing her. Is this what I want? Last time, it ended in disaster. It's been only a short time since we resumed our friendship. I don't want to screw this up again. Anna didn't want to take things slowly. She almost lost him once and wasn't willing to risk it again. She decided to take the chance to let him know how she felt.  She waited to see if he pulled away when she slipped her arms around him, but he didn't even flinch. Tilting her head back, she stared at the underside of his chin for a full minute while he fought himself. Impatient, she slid her hand up his chest to his face and traced the white scar that had so intrigued her the day they met. Softly grasping his jaw, she directed his gaze down at her. As soon as their eyes met, he bent to kiss her. She reached up toward him and they were lost in a blur, without thinking or feeling, simply enjoying the moment. He held her head, fingers entwined in her soft hair. Her hands caressed the gentle strength is his back and arms. There was no interruption this time, no reason to stop other than the self control each one exercised.  After a long while, they stopped kissing and he pulled her close, afraid this new pleasure would slip through his fingers. She laid her head against him, listening to his heart beat, taking comfort in its security. Kissing the top of her head, he suggested they head back to
camp. He took her hand and they walked slowly back to the tent. They were leaving early in the morning and both of them were anxious to get to sleep, but reluctant to let the moment end. After teeth brushing and last minute preparations they both slipped into their sleeping bags. Anna closed her eyes and then heard a rustling beside her. Gabe knelt on the side of her mattress. In the dark she really couldn't see anything, but she felt him touch her face and brush a kiss across her lips. Gabe confessed, “I forgot to kiss you good night and after missing so many good nights, I didn't want to miss one more.” Anna's heart nearly melted. Sleep would take it's own sweet time to arrive as she ran through the last hour, over and over again in her head.
Chapter 18
The weeks after Spring Break brought a new reality to Gabe, Anna and their boys. He juggled filming and time with Sean, but now looked for any time he could squeeze in to spend with Anna. Sean and Chris were delighted to see each other so often. Gabe and Anna decided it was best to keep their romance under wraps for a while. Both of them had baggage from previous relationships to overcome and didn't want to rush anything. The boys' imagination would have them married off in a matter of days. Telling either of their parents would be worse. “It feels a little like being a teenager again; holding hands where no one can see and snatching kisses without being discovered,” Gabe confessed to Anna one afternoon.  She giggled and pushed him around the corner to steal a kiss farther away from the TV where the boys sat. Slowly a routine spending time together developed and the need to be touching constantly diminished. The comfort of innocent
hugs and unsuspecting good night kisses took away a bit of the thrill, but meant they were able to show affection without anyone noticing. Gabe found dances and game nights where he could drop their sons off and sneak in dates. It had been almost two months since their second “first kiss” and Sunday afternoon again filled with swimming, barbeque, family and friends. Gabe left his dad in charge of the grill and went in the kitchen to grab some onions to throw on with the burgers. Anna stood at the island chopping broccoli into bite size pieces. He swept in behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. She snuggled into him and he kissed her lightly on her shoulder at the base of her neck.  She turned to face him and raised her arms to touch his hair and face, then kissed him deeply. In the midst of this haze Gabe heard a cough. Opening his eyes and turning slowly toward the kitchen opening he spied his mom and dad standing there dumb struck, but with faint smiles developing. “Don't let us interrupt, we just needed the onions and wondered what was taking so long. We didn't realize you were busy,” Rose spoke first. Doug simply picked up the bowl of onions sitting on the counter, bumped his elbow against Anna's arm and added with a nod, “It's about time.” Rose and Doug walked back out to the patio as Gabe and Anna collapsed against each other laughing. He collected the veggie tray and carried it outside to feed his guests. As each group left, Gabe said good bye at the door. Anna stayed cleaning up, pushing chairs back around the tables and throwing a load of towels in the washer. Sean and Chris were hidden away in the bed room playing a card game.
Gabe had been wearing his swim suit all day but never made it into the pool or jacuzzi. As soon as he closed the door on his parents, he walked into the hallway and grabbed two towels, one for himself and one in case Anna wanted to join him. Gabe continued down the hall to check on the boys. They were still engrossed and he told them he would be in the pool if they needed anything. He turned to go look for Anna and found her standing against the patio railing looking out at the city lights and the dark abyss of ocean below. He hugged her from behind and she laid her head back against his chest, closed her eyes, and breathed deep letting herself relax completely. He slipped away from her and dove head first into the pool. Anna glanced at him, the sight of him wearing only swim trunks still made her hormones flutter. She still occasionally teased him about being a ''Pretty-Boy-Actor' but it became a term of endearment she used when he was looking exceptionally good that day or, much more commonly, when he pulled a practical joke on her or teased her. She learned quickly how to distinguish between when he was serious and when he was acting, just for pure self preservation. She had learned a few acting skills from him as well and could pull off a few practical jokes of her own. Following him, Anna removed her coverup and laid it on a chair nearby. Inching her way down the cement steps into the shallow end, she caught her breath as it got deeper and the water hit her midsection. The deep coolness finally reached over her shoulders until unexpectedly Gabe grabbed her foot underwater and pulled her down toward the bottom. She escaped his grasp by tickling him. Underwater, toward the deep end, she glided until she
hid where the dark shadows covered her completely. Gabe glanced around the shadowed pool and finally divined where she was located in the darkness. Anna crept nearly silently along the side slipping past him while his eyes adjusted to the darkened area. She slipped under the water, but he turned around grabbing her. Gabe gently pushed her against the side of the pool and kissed her thoroughly. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, but found it disconcerting to feel only skin beneath her fingers. His hand touched her bare back above her suit which did nothing to quell the hormones inside him. She needed to hold onto him in order to stay afloat, but her mind kept wandering from the feel of his muscles under her hand. His mouth left hers and gently ran along her neck. His mouth returned to her lips, but then he abruptly pulled away. A deep breath escaped as he pushed from the side toward the shallow end. His back to her, he faced the steps gazing out at the sky line. What if she doesn't understand? What if she leaves like Rana did? How could I expect a woman to understand the promise I have made? Slowly she made her way over to him. Anna stopped a few feet short and sat on the other side of the cement steps. He still hadn't turned to face her. Gingerly, she touched his shoulder with her fingertips, no more than a brief second. He jumped and shifted, hiding his face from her. “Gabe, what's going on? Are those tears?” Anna asked very concerned. “I need to explain, but once I have I'm afraid you may leave. If you don't want to be with me anymore, I completely understand.” The words came out in stilted phrases, his throat tightened so that
he could barely speak. She just sat there silently waiting for him to continue. She dreaded hearing whatever must be so awful to upset him like this. “Back in October, Sean made a decision he was going to wait until marriage.” He paused to make sure she understood what he meant. Gabe took a deep breath, his eyes burned and his chest felt like lead. “Sean decided he wanted to make that commitment and I supported that.” Anna nodded in agreement. “The thing is, he wanted me to promise as well.” Gabe's shoulders slumped and his head hung. He didn't want to see the reaction in her eyes. Anna waited to hear the rest of the story, but he didn't continue. It dawned on her that this was it. He wanted to wait until marriage to have sex and their bit of making out got too out of hand for him so he pulled away. She cautiously clarified, “So, you made a promise to him to wait until marriage?” Gabe simply nodded, his head still hung low. Quickly, in her mind, she ran through this new development. How much does sex matter in a dating relationship? Waiting until marriage was not a unique idea to her. She had waited with her first husband, but look how that turned out. Could they continue? Would it affect how she felt about him? Does it matter more than how much she loved him? She gently reached beneath his chin, tipping his head up to look at her. She ran options through her head of making this a serious discussion or a lighthearted one. A smirk spread out from her mouth, barely noticeable in the dark. “Gabriel James Josephs do you really think so little of me that you believe I would leave you for something like that?” She tried to sound insulted.
“What?” He shook his head trying to clear the water from his ears. Convinced he heard wrong, he started to explain again. “No, it's that I understand if you...” Anna cut him off, “Well, then, it isn't a good idea to be kissing wearing only swimsuits. Would you like to keep your lips to yourself and continue swimming or get dressed and go make out in the living room?” An earthquake might have been more expected as Gabe pushed away and began to tread water while processing her offer. The wheels in his mind cranked through every possible explanation, but none of it made sense. A woman who is willing to accept this when she doesn't have to. Where in the world did she come from and why does she want me? When he didn't answer her, Anna made her way to the pool steps and exited the water. She grabbed her towel and began drying off her hair and shoulders. “I'm going to go put on some clothes, Pretty Boy. If you decide to do the same then I'll see you in the living room,” she called out with one last longing glance at him then she walked away.
Chapter 19
A few weeks later, Anna once again stumbled off the little plane grateful for the solid earth beneath her feet. She had prepared this time with a soda and a plastic bucket of popcorn to calm her stomach. She still felt light headed and queasy, but was not as sick as she had been their previous trip to the cabin. Given the chance she would vote to never take the small plane again, but Gabe loved it. Once again Gabe handed her the keys to the rented suburban, knowing that she needed to drive to stem the tide of motion sickness. She smiled gratefully holding on to his arm to keep herself steady and up on her feet.  “That's why I love you,” she whispered in appreciation so only he could hear her. To the rest of the family members standing around she said, “OK, everyone grab your stuff and load it up. Off we go.” The drive was even more beautiful this time. Anna loved the ever greens filling the mountain. She was not really a fan of cold and
snow so July was a much better season for her. Gabe opened the windows and breathed deep. This was his second home and an immediate peace fell on him as Anna carefully maneuvered the narrow road. “You won't get there faster by pushing,” Anna teased Gabe who had his feet pressed hard against the floorboards willing their destination to arrive sooner. Their parents discussed plans for the weekend and debated how best to spend their time. The rest of the family would meet them up there. It was a day long drive up from Southern California so most of Gabe's guests would arrive that night. Gabe was uncharacteristically quiet and noncommittal through the whole conversation. Their arrival was once again met by Sue and John and their daughters, Clover and Poppy. The house was opened and cleaned and Gabe chastised Sue for doing too much. For Anna it seemed like deja vu, a do over and opportunity to get it right this time. Hopefully, no drama, no excitement, just peace and enjoyment this vacation. Suitcases were hauled into the same bedrooms as before. Gabe suggested a horseback ride and the boys eagerly agreed. Anna felt better by that time and agreed to tag along. Poppy and Clover quickly got their horses ready as well. The smell of the pines led them slowly up hills and past forks in the trail. Anna was glad that Gabe and the girls knew where they were headed, she would have been lost long before then. Cresting a ridge, they decided to stop and rest. Chris pulled out a camera. Photography began to really interest him a few months before and he took advantage of the amazing scenery to take several pictures. Sean was a rock hound and he searched the area for
interesting geology. Anna was just grateful to unwrap her legs from the saddle and walk off the feeling of the ride. Sitting on a large stone Gabe motioned her over. She sat beside him and he grabbed her hand. Chris noticed Gabe's action and wondered for a minute if there was more going on between their parents than he or Sean knew. They often held hands, but he chalked it up to friendship because they didn't do anything more. Poppy started a game of tag with Sean and the four kids began running after each other. Anna leaned her head on Gabe's shoulder and smiled at them. Gabe played with a small stone lost in his own thoughts. He offered it to Anna teasing, “Doesn't every woman want a man to give her a big rock?” “Usually with a little more clarity and shine, but if this is the best you can do,” she answered with a smile and a fake shrug. “I'll have to remember that,” he responded a slightly serious tone to his voice. Anna felt her heart skip a beat thinking about what promises the future could hold. She knew for certain that any talk of a shiny, clear “rock” lay in the distant future. There was no rush and Gabe, having never been married, was rightly cautious. Fully rested the party rode back to the cabin and prepared dinner for those who would arrive that evening. One by one cars pulled into the gravel drive and the guest rooms were filled with luggage. For just a moment Gabe stood looking at his full house thinking he couldn't want for anything more. Well, almost nothing.
Chapter 20
The second night in Tahoe, Anna wondered where they were going as Gabe directed the car into a compact parking space in front of a warehouse. He hadn't spoken much since they left the cabin. He had been in a good mood all day, but became more and more introspective as the afternoon progressed. Anna continued teasing and prompting him to cheer up, but he would just smile and then go quiet again. She started to worry. They now faced a building covered in a brightly painted underwater scene. Portraits of fish, whales, and crustaceans covered the outside walls. Dark double glass doors invited them in with a sign announcing Mountaintop Aquarium. There were no other cars parked near the door and Anna wondered if they were even open. Gabe exited the car and walked nervously over to the passenger side. “I thought we were going to dinner,” Anna asked as Gabe opened her door. “We are,” he answered cryptically.
“Are we visiting here first?” she asked, wondering how her feet would hold up if she spent too much time walking around in the strappy, gold, high heel shoes she had chosen. “Nope, not first,” he again offered no details or explanation. “They probably frown on us helping ourselves to their sea food,” she smiled, hoping to draw him out a little more. Gabe laughed but then his face dropped again. “Are they even open?” Anna began to worry about him, but she followed him trustingly. “They are for us,” Gabe said, no emotion in his voice. Anna softly grabbed his arm, stopping him from entering the large front door. She turned him to face her. Trying to balance her tone of voice, strong enough that he took her seriously, but soft enough to not be too demanding; she asked, “What is wrong? What is going on? You are freaking me out and I'd like to know what we're doing.” He smiled at her and put his hands on her arms, “I'm sorry, I am just excited for dinner. I underestimated how much you don't like surprises.” He pulled her closer and kissed her gently. “Nothing is wrong. Let's go have dinner and I'll explain everything.” He looked deeply in her eyes and she melted and agreed to go along. With his hand on the middle of her back, he opened the door and guided her in. The Aquarium manager met them at the door and invited them through into a large hallway lined with more paintings of under sea life. Occasionally, a fish tank broke up the expanse of wall. Blue-ish lights displayed various fish in each tank. Anna loved water and the ocean and she felt her worry dissipate as they walked along.  Gabe relaxed too. He grabbed her
hand and winked at her, then kissed her on the cheek. “I love you,” he added spontaneously. In response, she wrapped her arm around his waist and kissed him. The manager continued in front of them until they reached a large circular room. The entire length of the walls were filled with tank after tank of animals and plants as it curved around. The light glowed blue and purple through the room. In the center stood a small round table draped with a silky white table cloth barely skimming the floor. China and crystal adorned it for an intimate candle lit dinner. Anna drew in a breath at the beauty and thought of eating surrounded by the light sound of bubbling water through filtering hoses. She turned to look at Gabe and asked, “All of this just for dinner?” Gabe met her gaze and responded, “No, all of this, just for you.” Butterflies started in Anna's chest until one of the Aquarium employees stifled a snicker. Both Gabe and Anna realized how cheesy his words must have sounded to the woman, and began laughing too. Relieved at their reaction, the manager invited them to sit at the table. The woman slipped into the next room and brought back two salads, followed by a young man with a pitcher of water to fill their glasses. “Ok, I give, why are we eating in the middle of an Aquarium?” Anna wondered out loud. “Don't you want to eat and enjoy before I start explaining?” Gabe asked. Anna's look told him that her curiosity beat out her patience. He gave in and considered how best to let her in on his
“I wanted to recreate our day at the Aquarium in Long Beach,” he paused and let her remember that day. “Until then I didn't even like you,” “Gee, thanks,” she interrupted sarcastically. He smiled and continued on, “that day I saw your real personality and I liked what I saw. Besides, it was the best laugh I had in a long time.” he added teasing her back. Anna reflected back to all the misunderstandings that were cleared up when Gabe explained that his mom was not actually his wife and he wasn't a misogynistic husband. That day had been a turning point. In the past year they became friends, then more than friends and then less than friends. It was slightly more than four months since they were back on speaking terms and a few weeks less of actual dating this time. Am I crazy to love her as much as I do? Gabe considered all they had been through. He loved her because she was the one he counted on for everything. Sean was still his best friend; regardless of what happened in his day, he wanted to share it with Sean, but Anna came a close second. When they were apart he thought of what he would tell her and what she would say, how she would respond. As Sean got older, he spent more time with friends and less with dear, old dad.  He felt excited and grateful to have Anna around to fill up his time. He smiled at her and the stress and anxiety dissipated. Anna couldn't believe how wrong she had been about Gabe. He was not only not a cruel man, but he always seemed to be thinking about others. He considered how his actions would affect everyone before he acted; he was fiercely loyal and caring with his
family and friends. She considered herself lucky to have him. They were remarkably quiet as they ate their salads, each lost in their own thoughts. The waiter returned and presented the main course plate, Fajitas. Anna looked at Gabe quizzically and he just laughed. “That night, after the Aquarium, we went back to your house and the boys and I made steak fajitas for dinner, with brownies and ice cream for desert.” Shrugging he added, “I decided to recreate the whole day, so I thought it would be fun.” Anna reached across the table and took his hand, then she rose up slightly and leaned across to kiss him. “It is wonderful. I can't believe you remembered all of this. You're better at this mushy, romantic stuff than I am.” As they ate, Anna questioned Gabe on the plans for the rest of the week. He laid out a set plan for tomorrow: flag raising in town then back to the cabin for pancake breakfast. Since breakfast would be so late, not much was planned for lunch, just chips and veggie tray to snack on throughout the day. Dinner would be barbeque with salads and side dishes galore followed up by all the best deserts Sue could prepare. All those who wanted to would take the drive back down the mountain to watch fireworks on the lake. None of the other days had any schedule. Rose and Doug, along with Mary and Bob, wanted to visit antique stores and quilt shops. Well, Rose and Mary wanted to visit those shops and their husbands were willing to accompany them. When Anna pressed Gabe for suggestions on what more they could do, he answered, remarkably evasive. He offered that Sue and John and their girls would love to take Sean and Chris hiking and horse back riding. There were historical sites just over the mountain that they planned on too.
“So, are we invited on all these adventures, or are they just stealing our kids?” Anna inquired. “We can tag along if we want,” Gabe's face clearly showed his mind floating to something else. He didn't elaborate at all. Anna finished her last bite and the manager returned to clear their plates. Gabe looked up and him and asked, “Could you give us a few minutes before you bring desert?” The manager nodded and walked away with his hands full. “I need to talk to you about something important,” Gabe's tone sounded serious and Anna's earlier worry returned. She looked into his eyes for reassurance, but the stress on his face did nothing to relieve her concern. Gabe took a deep breath and continued. Oh Please, help me get these words out right. Please let her understand. I hope this works. “I love you, more than I can say. You have become my friend, the woman I love, and with the exception of Sean, the most important thing in my world.” The words came out softly and unsure. “Gabe, what's wrong?” Anna interrupted. He looked startled at her reaction, like he didn't realize the vibe he gave off. “Nothing is wrong,” he paused, “at least I hope it's not wrong. Am I messing this up? I wanted it to be romantic and thoughtful and...” he trailed off. Quickly, he pulled a medium sized, wrapped box from under his chair and handed it to her. She smiled uncertainly at him and began to unwrap it. Inside sat another wrapped box. Hesitantly, she unwrapped that one too. Inside the smaller box hid a blue velvet jewelry box, the kind that usually holds a
necklace. It looked about six inches wide and about 2 inches tall. He hadn't ever given her jewelry before. In fact, no one had ever given her real jewelry before.  For the first time, she considered that his professional success might have some benefit. Still not accustomed to his fame and fortune, she reluctantly accepted it as part of the package. Her heart sank a little as she contemplated not being able to return his generosity. She decided to focus instead on the moment at hand. The pounding in her chest beat a little faster as she pried the box open like an oyster shell. The hinges were tight and it took a lot of effort to raise the lid. She looked expectantly at another box? This small velvet container was the same color and fabric, but smaller, for earrings. “I thought it would be funny,” he answered her gaze sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders. He crept to the edge of his seat, half leaning across the table waiting expectantly for her to open it. She almost expected him to jump up and open it for her, he seemed so impatient. Her fingers gripped the velvet, opening this box was as difficult as the other one.  No longer able to resist, Gabe slid from his seat to kneel in front of her. He eagerly anticipated her reaction, watching and waiting, his eyes glued to her face. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw the glitter inside. A wide, gold ring laid on the satin cushion. A square diamond shone in the faint aquarium lighting, small carved flowers decorated the band. Tears filled her eyes and she focused on Gabe, scared this wasn't really what it appeared to be. “Are you...?” Anna choked on the question. Gabe nodded, removed the ring from the box and held it between them. “Will you marry me?”
A tear spilled over her bottom lid and she nodded vehemently. She leaned forward to kiss him. “Are you sure?” Gabe asked disbelievingly. “I was afraid you would think it came too soon.” Anna, still unable to speak, shook her head and kissed him again. She found her voice and responded, “I love you and I want to marry you.” Gabe slipped the ring on her finger. It stuck just above her second knuckle and he glanced at her, worried it wasn't right. “I thought it would fit. I took your other ring to have them size it just to make sure.” “It does,” she responded, “you just have to finagle it a bit.” She twisted it and pushed it the rest of the way on. She held up her hand to see it glitter in the pale light. She replaced her arms around his neck and pulled him close against her. Several minutes later, they heard a reluctant voice from the corner of the room.  “Will you be ready for desert soon?” The manager stood half way through the doorway, asking apologetically. Gabe slipped his arms from around Anna and returned to his seat. “Yes, please bring it in.” Gabe answered. “Sorry, we've kept you so late. I guess we just got carried away.” “Totally understandable,” the manager assured them, They finished their desert, thanked the Aquarium staff for their good work and headed to the car. “Do you want to head back to the cabin or would you like to go out and do something more?” Anna asked Gabe. “Thankfully, it's still early. The boys are still up, so we should probably head back and let them in on our great news.” He took her
hand and kissed her again. During the drive, they discussed where and when they should make it official. “Do you want to wait or should we go for it right away?” Gabe asked. “We'll need a few months to plan everything, but the sooner the better,” Anna replied with a twitch of her eyebrow and a sly smile which set Gabe's insides on fire. “Where would you like to have the ceremony?” Gabe inquired. “We could do a big ceremony at the church or a small ceremony on the beach somewhere.” “I prefer a small celebration, if all our family and close friends could be there. If only we could take everyone with us to elope in Vegas.” Anna laughed. “Maybe a long weekend, we could have everyone come up here to the cabin, like they are this weekend.” “Well, the cabin technically lies in Nevada, so we could kidnap a pastor and force him to marry us this weekend if you wanted?” Gabe joked. “If only we had thought of that earlier,” Anna teased back, a little disappointed that they weren't able to do just that. They drove the rest of the way holding hands and imagining outlandish ceremonies, each one crazier than the last. Soon the cabin came into view. It looked so inviting, the windows shone in the darkness.  Gabe parked the car on the gravel driveway, a short way from the front porch.  Anna remained seated while he walked around the car to open her door. Instead of helping her out, he knelt before her again. Gazing deeply at her in the near darkness he touched the ring on her hand. In a tone equally as serious as the first time he
repeated his question, “Anna, will you marry me?” Confused, she asked, “Haven't I already answered that one?” He nodded but then swallowed hard and added to his question. “Anna, will you marry me, now?” Still confused she sat silent, not exactly sure what he was asking her. “I just thought about the cabin being technically inside the state of Nevada. I remembered that my mom invited two families up for dinner tonight. One of those guests is Reverend Bretten and his family.  If you are game, and it's not too crazy, I thought that maybe tonight would be the perfect night for it...” His voice trailed off as he tried to gauge her reaction. “All our closest friends and family are here and it just seemed designed to work out.” Anna sat dumbfounded, not sure how to answer him. Can we really just get married so quickly? Ok, we can, but should we? For that matter why shouldn't we? Is it too soon? Does it matter? I've known him a year already. We've been through good and bad and I love him. The boys would be thrilled! Is there any real reason to wait?  All of these thoughts ran through her head in the seconds she sat staring at him under the cloudless star studded sky. “We should ask the boys,” she finally answered him. If they are willing to up heave our lives so soon then I am game as well.” Gabe grabbed her hands and helped her from the car. He asked her to remain outside and he went in to get their sons. A few minutes later, Sean and Chris stepped outside following Gabe.   They approached her warily. Evidently, Gabe had not told them anything. In fact, she wouldn't put it past him to purposely make the boys think there was something wrong, just so they would be more surprised when they
learned the truth. “Mom, are you ok?” Chris asked worriedly. Anna smiled and nodded, “I'm fine, but there is something I need to discuss with the two of you.” Following Gabe's supposed lead, she began to question them in a manner that delayed their discovery of the real situation. “Chris, how would you feel if we moved?” Anna asked trying to appear innocent. Chris stared at her in disbelief. “There is a house about forty-five minutes from our house, we would have to share it with a roommate, two of them in fact.” Sean and Chris looked at each other unsure what was happening. “If you are moving away, will you still be able to come over for dinner and to spend time with us?” Sean asked, fearful of the response. “The amount of time they are spending with us is definitely going to change,” Gabe continued the misleading conversation. “We are going to be making big changes to our house and I don't know if they will feel completely comfortable. You are going to have to agree to make these changes because they are going to be big! But I hope you're ok with it, because if not, we may not see them much at all. The changes are essential to them spending time at our house.” Anna turned away briefly to hide her smile. She was not as good an actor as Gabe. He didn't even flinch as Sean's face turned ashen and Chris stammered trying to organize words to express his new fears. “What's going on? Why are we moving? Why are things changing? Why can't we be friends with Gabe and Sean any more?” His inquiries fell out one after another.
“They don't have to change,” Anna stated with a straight face, but her resolve was melting. “It only changes if you agree,” she paused for a moment but could no longer hold it in, “but I think that you will be excited by what we have planned.” Gabe smiled widely and Sean stared at him glaring. Apparently, he often fell victim of Gabe's deceptions and wasn't amused by this one. “You were just messing with us?” Sean accused. “We told the truth, but not all of it,” Anna defended. “We have big news to share and we need to get your take on our plans.” Chris placed his hands on his hips and tilted his head as he waited to hear the complete situation. Sean was still not willing to forgive them. In answer to their questions, Anna divulged part of the secret. “For the past few months whenever you two went to dances or to hang out with your friends, Gabe and I have been going out...on dates.” She let that sink in for a minute. Chris looked at Gabe, then back to Anna, over to Sean, still processing. Sean just kept staring at Gabe trying to decide if he told the truth. Finally, convinced, he turned to Chris with a light in his eyes. Chris' face already showed his excitement and both of them started to discuss what it meant to have their parents dating. Stopping for a second Chris asked, “What about moving? And why does that change how much time we'll spend with them?” Sean inquired about the changes in their house and how dating affected it. In response to both Gabe grabbed Anna's hand and held it up in the pale mountain moonlight. The ring on her finger barely glittered in the scant light, but both boys stared in complete disbelief. Chris tried to restrain himself from hoping that it was really
true and Sean didn't actually believe it was real. Their parents could still be pulling a prank on them. “I've asked Anna to marry me and she said Yes,” Gabe confirmed the boys suspicions. Neither one said anything for a second, but suddenly they erupted into yelps and whoops. Jumping up and down Sean grabbed Chris' arm and they bounced in unison. “We're going to be brothers, we're going to be brothers,” they began to sing in time to their jumping and dancing. Anna laughed at their ridiculous enjoyment of the situation. She let them celebrate the moment before asking the question that she currently needed an answer to. “We need to know how soon you think we should get married,” Anna tried to calm them down a little. “It is going to be a great thing, but it's also going to mean a whole lot of big changes.” Turning to Sean she said, “You are going to have to share your house with us. The office will become Chris' bedroom. We have our own furniture, dishes, and even laundry soap. We're going to have to compromise a lot because we're not going to be able to keep everything, so some of your stuff will leave to make room for us.” Sean suddenly understood the impact of this decision. Chris began to worry about all the changes it would mean for him too. “I'll have to change schools and church and scouts and my friends,” Chris said slowly. Anna put her hand on Chris' shoulder to comfort him. “We'll be able to visit our friends, just like we've been visiting with Gabe and Sean all this time. It's the same drive.” With a deep breath she added, “You're most important to me, so we'll only do this if you approve.”
Chris looked at Sean's expectant face and then at Gabe's concerned one. He nodded and a small smile of agreement spread across his face. The benefits outweighed the sacrifices and he returned to his previous excitement. “Well, how soon should it happen?” Gabe repeated Anna's question. “Tomorrow” they both responded and then yelled “jinx, jinx, jinx.” at each other, neither one of them winning the jinx contest because they kept repeating it at the same time. “Well, we were thinking sooner than that,” Gabe proposed innocently. Chris and Sean both turned toward him, eyes wide. “Isn't Reverend Bretten and his family here for dinner?” Both boys nodded, eyes still big as saucers. “We could ask him to marry us tonight if we want.” Gabe's last statement was more of a question and he waited to see what their sons would say. Their reaction involved more bouncing and exclamations, “Yes,” “Yes,” “Let's do it right now,” and “What are you waiting for? Let's go!” Sean grabbed Gabe's hand and Chris grabbed Anna's and they pulled their parents toward the house. Gabe was barely able to resist long enough to shut the car door behind Anna and lock it with the remote as they were dragged away.
Chapter 21
Sean opened the front door and with the hustle and bustle of a much larger group, the four of them entered, their faces glowing and smiles plastered wide. Doug turned around and caught Gabe's eye and Gabe knew that his father suspected what was about to happen. I don't know how dad always knows so much, but I'm grateful for his constant support. Anna tucked her left hand behind her and whispered to the boys to not blurt out their news. Gabe gently touched Anna's back and caught her eye as he walked over to the Reverend and in his ear asked to speak with him briefly. The two men walked in the other room to avoid being overhead. “How was dinner?” Rose asked Anna, who shook her head slightly stunned to have such a normal question directed at her. “Where did you end up going?” “It was great. He took me to sea food,” Anna responded trying to make coherent answers form from the rushing whirlwind of thoughts racing in her mind.
“You're home early. You two should have stayed out and done something fun. We're here with the boys. You could take advantage.” Mary piped into the conversation. Anna shook her head slightly, partly in an effort to clear her thoughts and partly to answer her mother.  “We had a few things to do tonight, we wanted to come back here and see all of you.” Confused by Anna's clouded answers, Mary was about to press her further.  When Gabe and the Reverend returned to the living room, Anna's focus shifted completely to them. Reverend Bretten smiled at her and she exhaled for what seemed like the first time since they had entered the cabin. Anna quickly walked over to Gabe and took his hand. “If everybody would take a seat,” Gabe said the words loud enough for everyone to hear and they stopped to look at him expectantly. “Where are Emi and Leena?” When Bob indicated overhead, he added, “Chris, could you run up and get them?” Gabe nodded at Chris, hoping the boy understood he should keep the secret. Gabe insisted everyone find a seat while they waited for Emi and her daughter. Slowly they heard footsteps descending the stairs. Anna walked toward the oversized fireplace, pulling Gabe behind her. She motioned with her head for Reverend Bretten to follow as well. When Chris rounded the doorway she held out her hand to him and Gabe waved Sean over. The Reverend stepped behind the couple and Gabe began to speak to the crowd. “What some of you may not know is that for the past few months Anna and I have been together. We kept it a secret because we knew that between the boys and all of you the pressure would be intense. We wanted to figure it out for ourselves, make sure it
was going to work before we included all of you in our relationship.” Turning to Anna he continued, “Anna, you are the woman I have looked for all these years. You are truly so kind and loving. You are funny and constantly make my life happier. When I thought I lost you, it was the hardest time of my life because it felt like suddenly knowing the sun but only living among the stars.” Tears spilled down Anna's cheeks as he continued. “Anna, I promise you I will spend the rest of my life being the best man and husband you could hope for. I want you to know how special you are and how much you really deserve.” His left cheek creased in his typical off center smile, “I even get another boy as an added bonus.” He winked at Chris. Deciding he wasn't going to continue, Anna started. “I feel like I finally understand love and generosity. You have the ability to make everyone around you feel like they are the only important person at that moment. Your kindness and gentleness only seem to magnify your strength and determination to be a good man and a good father.” She stepped a little closer to him and grabbed both of his hands, holding them in front of her. “I promise you I will spend every day caring for you and the wonderful sons we get to share.” She first glanced at Sean and then looked back over her shoulder and winked at Chris so he knew he was included too. “It took me a long time to be able to say I wanted to be a wife again, but I can't imagine not trusting you with my whole heart and soul. I can't imagine not being together forever and making our individual families finally one family, complete and whole.” Gabe leaned forward to kiss her, but Reverend Bretten interrupted. Looking first at Anna, then Gabe.
He then announced to their friends and family, “By the power of the State of Nevada, I now pronounce you man and wife.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Now, you can kiss her,” he indicated and Gabe took full advantage of it. The onlookers sat silent and stunned. They had all supposed that Gabe was just proposing and that Anna had simply accepted. It took them all by surprise that this could be an actual wedding ceremony and that they had just witnessed vows. Leena and Kimme were the first to jump up. “Aunt Anna, that was so great!” “I am so excited for you!” both girls spoke at once as they ran to her and hugged her. Bob finally pried himself out of the chair and shook Gabe's hand, offering congratulations and a small comment of gratitude. “I know you love her and you'll take care of her. She deserves it after all these years. Do a good job by her and she'll love you forever.” Gabe just nodded, suddenly finding his throat constricted and his eyes watery. One by one they offered hugs and congratulations, until Mary suddenly demanded to know how this all happened. “Why the sudden, unannounced wedding ceremony? You're not pregnant are you?” she glowered amidst panicked looks from the others and a small gasp from Rose. Anna laughed, “No, Mom, no chance of that.” She saw Chris' face awash in disbelief and turned to reassure him. “Honestly, son, there's no way. We chose to do it this way because we wanted to, not because we had to.” Chris relaxed, his faith in his mom restored. Gabe and Anna shared the story of the last few hours with their loved ones, the boys chimed in when it got to their part. Rose actually let out a sigh when Anna described Gabe's second proposal
by the car, while his cousin just rolled his eyes at all the mushiness. Anna showed off her new ring, and Gabe confessed to sneaking into her computer and searching through some of the pictures of jewelry she had tagged in folders on her boards. He had pulled the best parts of a few rings and had it custom made. Doug suggested a toast and Sue fished out bottles of Sparkling Cider, the only bubbly thing she had on hand. Once everyone had a cup, Doug nudged Sean and told him that as Best Man he had to make a speech. Sean looked at his dad in panic, but Gabe put a hand on his shoulder, nodded, and then told him to say what is on his mind. Sean swallowed and began to speak. “Dad, Anna, I'm real glad you two decided to get married. I'm so excited to finally have a brother. Anna, I know you'll be a good wife, because you are already a good mom. When you and my dad weren't friends anymore, you have no idea how sad he felt. But when you were friends again, he was happy and goofy and totally embarrassing, just like normal; better than normal. You make him happy and he deserves to be happy. I'm glad we all get to be a family.” When Sean abruptly stopped speaking, Doug chimed in, “Congratulations and cheers.” They all held up their drinks and repeated his words. Finally, everyone agreed that it had grown late and was time for bed. A situation suddenly confronted Gabe and he realized that their wedding night would be spent in a house filled with twenty other people. He didn't even have his own room. He had managed to plan the proposal so exactly but didn't plan at all for after the wedding. Could I really have been so distracted by love that I forgot? Anna noticed a shadow cross his face and asked him what he
was thinking about. “I'm ready for bed,” he raised his eyebrows suggestively, “but I didn't consider that we don't have anywhere private to sleep tonight.” His embarrassment showed on his face and he bit his bottom lip in frustration. Anna first blushed and then her eyes opened wide as she thought about their predicament. She tightened her mouth and suggested that the boys could stay with Sue and John since Poppy was away at school. Gabe, visibly relieved at the suggestion, went to talk to Sue and John. Anna wrapped her arms around her sons to ask if they would mind sleeping over that night. Chris asked why, but Sean remembered his conversation with his dad several months earlier. “Chris, they just got married...” Chris looked at her and then Gabe with a skeptical face. “It's not like you guys are young. You're parents, I mean, that's gross.” Gabe came back over to share Sue and John's acceptance of their plan. “Chris thinks the idea of us 'liking' each other is gross.” “Well, he better get used to the fact that I 'like' you a lot.” He swept his new bride into his arms and kissed her thoroughly. Just into Anna's ear he whispered, “I think we had better find a room.” She suggested the boys go up and grab their pajamas, toothbrushes, and clothes for the next day. Once they had everything they needed the boys said good night and followed Sue and John to their small home. “The coast is clear,” Anna announced softly and took her husband's hand and led him quickly up the stairs. She had barely shut the door when he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. First softly, then with increasing passion until
she could barely breathe, her heart beat nearly out of her chest. Things were progressing when Gabe suddenly stopped and looked at Anna. “When I said I didn't plan for a wedding, I really meant it. What are we going to do for protection?” Gabe ran a hand through his hair, unable to believe how dumb he had been. Anna sat up on the side of the bed and took a deep breath as she tried to decide what to do. “Well, we talked a little about this before, whether or not we wanted more kids. We both agreed we would gladly have more if they came along. I guess the decision is how soon are we planning on letting them 'come along'?” Sarcastically he responded, “Wow, isn't this romantic. We're in a house full of people, in a room with a bunk bed for the boys, trying to decide whether or not we get to have sex tonight based on how soon we want to have more kids.” He shook his head and then stared at the ceiling, “I am such an idiot.” “I want to have more kids. As far as I'm concerned we can start tonight.” She reached over to him and kissed his collar bone. “You're just saying that so we don't have to wait,” Gabe tried to calm her down. Sarcastically she responded, “Yes, Gabe, you're right. I thought that maybe I would try being sick, exhausted, and uncomfortable for 9 months and then spend 18 years raising a child all so I can sleep with you tonight.” With a wink she added, “You may be good, but I doubt you're that good.” He sighed, tilted his head to look at her, and then tried not to smile at her reasoning. He took a minute to think about it for himself. He wasn't getting any younger and if they were going to
have more kids, it was probably better they start sooner rather than later. He nodded and then pulled her close. “I think I love you even more, Mrs. Josephs. I didn't think that was possible.” He kissed her again and she melted into him. The strongest surprise came as Gabe realized that there is a huge difference between having sex with someone you care about and making love to the woman you've decided to spend eternity with. Gabe wondered how he ever could have confused the two. There is no comparison in pleasing your body versus giving over your soul.
Without opening his eyes against the morning sun, Gabe stretched his left arm to try and restore circulation. His fingers brushed against bare skin and he blinked quickly in order to focus on his wife curled up beside him.   He rolled over and kissed her shoulder barely peeking out above the covers. She slowly opened her eyes and raised her face to meet his. After a few short moments, Anna pulled away and announced that she needed to visit the “little girls room.” The romance continues. Gabe considered how real life is rarely full of wildly romantic moments, but right then he wouldn't want it any other way. He had plenty of time to fully contemplate it while he waited for Anna  to finish in the bathroom. He drifted back into the gauzy consciousness between wake and sleep when she slipped into bed behind him. Much later, Anna realized she was hungry. “I am starving, but I don't want to go downstairs to get food.” Misinterpreting her words, he wrapped his arms around her and passionately kissed her again.
“Well, that was nice, but not what I was saying. I didn't mean that I want to stay up here. I meant that I just don't want to go parading in front of everyone down there in order to get food.” Feigning hurt feelings for a moment, he then quickly agreed. “I can just imagine all the knowing smiles. Yep, no desire to face that. So what do we do? Risk embarrassment or starve to death? It might be kind of more embarrassing if they find our dead, nude bodies, up here in a couple days. Maybe we should risk it.” Gabe shrugged as he said it. He swung the sheet off of them and stepped out of bed just as a knock sounded against the bedroom door. Anna sat up wondering who could possibly be there to disturb them. Gabe put on some pajama bottoms and opened the door. No one stood there, but a note was stuck to the door. In his mom's handwriting he read: We are headed to town for lunch. If you two want to come downstairs ever, the house will be clear. You can find something to eat...or a hotel room :)
Gabe handed the note to Anna and grabbed his suitcase to start packing.

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